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Allergic to bees? You can still have an exciting garden, full of flowers and color and wildlife.

 
 
 
 

Plant Profiles

Hardy Orchid

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Yes!  A true orchid, growing directly in the garden!  Bletilla striata should be everyone's introduction to hardy orchids.  It's not as fussy as most lady slippers, but also, true, not nearly as hardy.  And it has foliage every bit as interesting, with longitudinal pleats.

 

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But it's the flowers that are the real thrill, saying "orchid" even to non-gardeners. 

 

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In a sheltered and shady spot largely given over to interesting foliage, the flowers of Bletilla are the star even though the plant itself is comparatively demure, and its blooms are barely two inches across.  Orchids trump just about anything else.

 

Here's how to grow this striking woodland perennial:


Latin Name

Bletilla striata

Common Name

Hardy Orchid, Ground Orchid

Family

Orchidaceae, the Orchid family.

What kind of plant is it?

Rhizomatous perennial.

Hardiness

Zones 6 - 9.

Habit

Two-leaved fans of nodding iris-like foliage from colonies of underground rhizomes that, in time and under congenial circumstances, grow densely enough that the plants can work as groundcovers.  Loose sprays of small but clearly orchid-like and showy flowers are held amid and above the foliage.

Rate of Growth

Medium.

Size in ten years

A clump three feet across.

Texture

Lively:  On closer inspection, the "iris-like" foliage of Bletilla striata isn't iris-like at all:  It's longitudinally pleated—"striated"—whereas iris foliage is smoooth.  And it nods, whereas iris foliage is erect .

Grown for

being one of the comparatively few orchids that can be easily grown in a New England garden.  Although the flowers and foliage are appealing in their own rights, even if they were not, the temptation to grow an orchid—any orchid—directly in a Zone 6 garden is still intense.  Gardeners who toil in solid Zone 7 and warmer have such wider ranges of choices in hardy orchids (let alone hardy jasmines, palms, cacti, aroids, gesneriads, begonias, and camellias) that they might think that the straight species of Bletilla striata isn't worthy of growing as more than groundcover.  How nice for them. 

 

The flowers:  They're small, but even from ten feet away, they are clearly those of an orchid, with cattleya form as well as color.

 

The foliage: The leaves' longitudinal pleats make this species worth growing even if it didn't flower.  Foliage with longitudinal pleats are almost iconically tropical—hello, fan palms!—but is unusual in plants hardier than Zone 6.  In addition to many forms of lady slipper orchids, Cypripedium, Veratrum species are some of the rare non-orchid alternatives for hardy plants with pleated foliage.  For foliage as well as flowers, Veratrum nigrum is on my bucket list.   

Flowering season

Early Spring in Zone 7 and warmer; late Spring into Summer in Zone 6.  My colony is in bloom as I write.

Color combinations

This orchid's lavender flowers cry out for pastel neighbors.  Pink is the obvious possibility, but because Bletilla is happy in part shade, where variegated foliage is so helpfully bright (and pink-variegated foliage almost non-existent), there are many more options if you partner, instead, with almost anything yellow, from butter to heavy cream. 

Partner plants


 

The exceptional pleated foliage is with you all season, and needs partnering more on the basis of texture and size than color.  The equally-exceptional flowers are only present for a few weeks in Spring, and any partners must celebrate their color (either by foliage or flowers) without competing with the reality that, hey, they're partnering with an orchid, whose flowers, by definition, are extraordinary and must have the full spotlight to themselves. 

 

Few plants are such accomplished multitaskers that they can be compatible neighbors to Bletilla on the basis of foliage and flower, and color and texture, and from Spring through Fall.  Alchemilla mollis comes close.  Its frothy mounds of chartreuse flowers make every other flower all the more striking, and, especially if cut back to the ground right after flowering—foliage as well as spent flower stems—the resulting mound of round foliage stays in good shape through frost.  But the leaves are large enough to be a bit heavy next to those of Bletilla, which are, themselves, unusual in their size and shape.

 

Better choices would be to grow Bletilla up through a carpet of sweet woodruff, Galium odoratum, whose ferny and bright-green foliage is the perfect counterpoint for the Bletilla leaves.  If the tiny white flowers are out at the same time as orchid's, it's a bonus; if they're not, it's not a tragedy.  And since "ferny" is always a good attribute near Bletilla, consider actual ferns.  Nephrolepis exaltata 'Rita's Gold' isn't hardy, but the gold fronds are worth the hassle and expense of yearly planting.


Several grasses happy in part shade are available in chartruese cultivars.  Look for options in these genera: Hakonechloa, Milium, and Carex.

 

I'm very pleased that a shade-tolerant conifer, Thujopsis dolobrata 'Aurea', is thriving near my young colony of Bletilla.  Its airily-branching foliage has a coral-like delicacy, and in a soft chartreuse that pairs well with both the mid-green of the Bletilla foliage and the lavender of its flowers.

 

Where to use it in your garden

Although in Zone 7 and warmer, Bletilla is vigorous enough to work as a groundcover, I'm hard-pressed to think of an orchid as anything other than a prized and small-scale specimen.  Then again, I recall that gardeners in the Bay Area struggle mightily to grow even a single specimen hosta (which cold-climate gardeners might plant by the dozens), by growing it in a pot, in soil mulched in spiky gravel, and with saucers of beer nearby and a ring of sharp-edged sheet-copper around the pot's rim.  Can it be that Portolla Valley plant nuts would walk right by a bed stuffed with Bletilla to gather with the same astonishment around a potted 'Sum & Substance' hosta that we in Rhode Island, who merely nod to hostas, extend to hardy orchids?

 

Context is everything.  I'll never forget the florist at the Mandarin Hotel in Hong Kong, who had folded-in each petal of budded pink lotus blossoms, so they looked more like 'New Dawn' roses.  In Hong Kong's steamy near-tropical climate, lotuses are an easy wetland thug, glamorous but ever-present.  'New Dawn' needs a cooler climate, and so would be an exotic import.

Culture

Part or afternoon shade in Zone 7 and warmer, or anywhere that sufficient soil moisture would be difficult to sustain in full sun.  Full sun in Zone 6 enables a bigger crop of flowers, provided that soil moisture doesn't suffer.  Rich, moist "woodland garden" soil in all climates, with good drainage more important to hardiness in Zone 6.

How to handle it: The Basics

Plant in Spring, and water attentively to ensure that the clump establishes.  If you're gardening where it's colder than Zone 7, mulch the clump heavily the first Winter; wait until the foliage has been thoroughly killed by hard frost before applying the mulch.  Remove the mulch in early Spring, well before growth is evident, and then wait (and wait some more) for it to appear.  Be alert for late-Spring frosts, which can ruin the flowers; if there's a risk, cover the colony for the night with a sheet or with newspaper.

How to handle it: Another option—or two?

If your colony of Bletilla is thriving, you could divide it for even wider coverage, or to share with Bletilla-less friends.  After removing any mulch in early Spring, check the colony weekly.  As soon as there's emergent growth, it's time to divide.  I'm still in awe of having established Bletilla, so I'll proceed cautiously, with a trowel and with plenty of exploratory noodling into the ground with my fingers.  Gardeners in Zone 7 through 9, however, where Bletilla is easy, might divide up  clumps the way we all do Hemerocallis and Hosta:  With casual brutality, and even by thumping a monster clump on the ground—hard—to shake off the dirt and better show where the actual division itself (by stabs with the shovel, chomps with loppers, and hacking swipes with a soil knife) could proceed.

Quirks or special cases

Although Bletilla can be very slow to emerge in Spring in Zone 6, tardiness doesn't diminish its ability to spread surprisingly far underground.  On both counts, don't cultivate within a couple of feet of your colony until you're sure all of it has finally appeared. 

Downsides

Other than that the genus isn't bone-hardy to Zone 4?  None.  Bletilla is the easiest hardy orchid to establish.

Variants

With well over twenty thousand species in more than eight hundred genera—let alone a hundred thousand cultivars and counting—the orchid family dwarfs all other plant families but that of the asters.  While species are native from the arctic circle to the tropics, few cultivated orchids outside the collections of hard-core hobbyists and botanists are hardy colder than the subtropics.  Hence, the tiny—for an orchid, that is—genus of Bletilla can bear the common name of "hardy orchid" without being overly simplistic.  The only other well-known competition for that common name is the lady slipper orchids, Cypripedium, some of which are native from the eastern United States well northward into Canada.  The pink-and-white form, Cypripedium reginae, is the state flower of Minnesota, which even at its most southerly border is still almost entirely Zone 4. 

 

Although cultivars of Bletilla are available with flowers that are white or nearly so, or pink or lavender—and often detailed with subtly contrasting lips blushed in pink, say, or darker-than-usual lavender—the diversity of the genus is mostly appealing to collectors.  If you have established any Bletilla at all, only a few others are different enough to a casual or even knowledgeable visitor to merit inclusion in a garden whose aspirations are aesthetic more than botanic.  I look forward to growing a stand of B. striata f. alba, in hopes that one of the plants blooms in true white, not the more typical white with a pink blush to the lip.  The foliage of B. striata 'Gotemba Stripes' is heavily lined with gold, much like that of a variegated aspidistra that—hooray!—decided to bear showy lavender orchid flowers.  The flowers of B. ochracea are cream with a yellow lip speckled with purple. 

 

Although not quite has hardy as Bletilla, the  species and cultivars in the orchid genus Calanthe have flowers with a wider range of colors, and born in larger clusters, too.  After I've got my Eagle Scout merit badge with Bletilla, I look forward to establishing one of them.

Availability

On-line and at "destination" retailers.

Propagation

By division.

Native habitat

Bletilla striata is native to eastern Asia, which is why many of the cultivars have Japanese names.

 
 
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