Of the 200,000 orchid species, 200 are hardy enough to grow in home gardens. Of those, many are easy to grow and add beauty and interest to the usual mix of plants.
One key to growing hardy orchids is to avoid killing them with kindness. In general, they prefer the low fertility provided by good compost, filtered sunlight and average to low water.
The orchids that enjoy the weather found in the southern states, zones 6 to 9, are Calanthe, Chinese Hardy Orchids – the Blettilla species, Grass Pink Calopogon, White Egret Flower – Pecteilis radiate, Fragrant Nodding Ladies Tresses and Lady’s Slippers – the Cypripediums.
For beginners in outdoor orchid growing, Chinese Ground Orchids or Bletilla varieties are the best place to start. They are reliable for spring color, attractive leaf form and when established they multiply to create colonies. Pollinators love them and despite the fact that they grow in shade, snails and slugs ignore them.
Kay Backues, president of the Tulsa Orchid Society said, “If you want to grow something you will be successful with and love, grow Bletillas.”
During the growing and blooming seasons, Bletilla orchids need rain or supplemental water. They cannot thrive in wet, heavy clay and are most likely to multiply in well-drained soil without standing water.
During the summer, they need a little water. Backeus said she waters hers the same as she waters her annuals and Echinaceas.
Avoid planting Bletilla among plants that spread by runner or by seed. In order to form clumps they have to grow without competition from plants that invade their territory.
“Bletillas cannot out-compete other plants,” said Backeus. “Mine are in a 2 by 3 foot bed and in the ten years they have grown there, clumps have been removed for sharing and they filled in the space quickly”.
As the clump grows, it can be divided but the offspring should be replanted as soon as possible so they do not dry out. Remove the soil from the clump of corms and cut the clump into pieces with two or three growing points. Dust the pieces with sulphur or let them harden off for a few days so the open cuts heal a bit before planting.
If the new pieces cannot be replanted right away, put them in bags of dry peat moss and refrigerate.
In his book, “Growing Hardy Orchids”, John Tullock calls Bletilla orchids the queen of hardy orchids (Timber Press, www.timberpress.com, 2005).
Tullock says that his first Bletillas were planted on the northeast side of his house foundation where they thrived among Hostas, ferns and a Japanese maple tree. He amended the planting area with compost, peat moss, leaves and composted pine bark.
Bletilla striata flower buds and leaves emerge at the same time and bloom in March, most years.
The American Orchid Society (www.dev.aos.org)
Plant Delights Nursery, Inc. www.plantdelights.com, (919) 772-4794
Tulsa Orchid Society, Emilie Kraft (918) 371-4723, firstname.lastname@example.org
Oklahoma Orchid Society http://www.oosorchids.org,