Growing Hardy Orchids

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Oh, my aching muscles...

By John Tullock

244 pages with illustrations

Timber Press, 2005. $29.95

Reviewed by Karen Preuss

I have a confession to make: I have never even attempted to grow orchids. While I'm as happy as the proverbial pig in mud to spend hours outside, pampering my peas and cheering on my chamaecyparis, when it comes to houseplants I tend to have an attitude of benign neglect. I've always though of orchids as indoor plants; too fussy and high-maintenance to suffer the indignities I would lavish on it. So it was with some trepidation that I agreed to write a book review on ~ you guessed it ~ orchids.

Second confession: I grew up in New Jersey. It snows there. A lot. Hardy orchids you grow outside? Who knew? John Tullock's Growing Hardy Orchids was an eye opener. It's jam packed with information for the orchid enthusiast who wants to introduce hardy, native North American orchids to the garden. The cover photograph of a Cypripedium acaule is so beautiful that I'm almost willing to make the leap into orchid growing on its merit alone, but cooler heads prevail. I must admit, the book didn't change my mind about orchids; Tullock readily admits that successfully growing orchids is an expensive, time-consuming endeavor, but the subject and the book are intriguing.

Growing Hardy Orchids is much more than a how-to book, although there's a lot of that. The author also offers his readers a thought-provoking lesson in conservation ethics. When is the collection of wild plants acceptable? Tullock believes that the best way to protect native plants is to protect the habitats where they occur, or in situ conservation. But given the choice between removing an important wild plant from a habitat that is about to be destroyed by development or losing the plant altogether, he comes down squarely on the side of removal. Tullock asserts the importance of ex situ conservation in order to preserve a species, and he includes both private gardens and commercial nurseries in his assertion. He is a conservationist who is also a realist. Development happens. There are seven native North American orchids on the federal government's list of endangered and threatened plant species, and more on endangered lists of individual states. Clearly, Tullock believes we should do whatever we can do ensure that these plants don't disappear entirely.

On to growing your own hardy orchids. Tullock explains that success with orchids first requires a growing medium that is tailored to the particular orchid's needs. Orchids favor sites where they have very little competition with other plants. Tullock admits that growing orchids requires a commitment from the gardener ~ orchids are far less adaptable than other familiar perennials, so a significant amount of preparation is involved if you want to achieve success. Follow his advice, though, and you'll be the envy of those who are less, well, driven.

Tullock provides excellent directions on how to construct an outdoor growing bed or a natural bog garden. He also includes recipes for a variety of growing mediums, referencing the specific species that grow best in each medium. There is a short chapter on propagation and good advice on transplanting and dividing orchids. An entire chapter is devoted to mycorrhizal associations, a must for the successful development of germinating seedlings.

Four lovely and distinctly individual orchids are featured in a chapter titled "Hardy Orchids Through the Seasons," each of which will grow in our climate zone. Cypripedium acaule, the pink lady's slipper, is the most common and wide-spread native orchid, with a spring bloom. The distinctive Platanthera ciliaris throws out a dense cluster of fringed orange florets in summer. The fall garden features Sprianthes cernua var. odorata 'Chadd's Ford,' with its tall spikes of white florets. And in winter, the unassuming spade-shaped leaf of the Tipularia discolor, or cranefly orchid, grows unnoticed on the woodland floor until it shrivels and disappears in spring, whereupon the flower spike appears, resembling a hovering cluster of craneflies.

The remainder of the book is a catalog of 103 hardy and half-hardy orchids. Tullock provides essential cultivation information for each. His stated intent is to provide a catalog that enables gardeners "to determine quickly and easily the suitability of any given species or hybrid according to their particular gardening needs and desires." About half of the orchids included in the catalog will grow in our climate zone. Photographs are included for some, but not all, of the catalog entries.

Appendices include a taxonomy of hardy orchid genera, based on Cribb's and Bailes' 1989 Hardy Orchids, and Pridgeon's 1992 The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Orchids. There is a helpful selection guide, a list of orchid suppliers, and an excellent, exhaustive bibliography.

So, for those braver souls than I, pick up a copy of Growing Hardy Orchids, then invite me over.

 Karen Preuss is the Library Manager of the Elisabeth C. Miller Library at the University of Washington Botanic Gardens.

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