A number of years ago I was asked to re-design a very large semi-shaded patio area. The house was huge and the patio ran the entire length. The client specifically asked for unusual perennials to interest her garden club friends. Because of the close-up viewing from the patio, used primarily for entertaining, I decided that each clump of perennials needed to be a small intimate cluster, not a large mass as we used in the background. And, based upon previous experience with this client I knew that whatever we put in needed to be easy to care for and just about fool proof.
I ran out of plant ideas before I filled the entirety of this huge space. At that time I was barely familiar with the perennial Chinese terrestrial orchid (Bletilla striata); but from everything I had read, it seemed like a good choice. Hardy Chinese Ground Orchid was reported to be very easy to grow, shade tolerant and appeared to be handsome even when out of bloom. And, having a perennial with blooms that looked like true miniature orchids certainly would get the attention of the garden clubbers. The light sweet fragrance was an added bonus. I decided to try a small grouping.
I happened to go back to this garden in late spring about three years after we installed the plants. In three years, the seven hardy orchids had expanded to a solid yard-wide clump with over a hundred flower stalks – truly a spectacular sight.
Since then I have had several more successes with hardy orchids (and no failures). I particularly like the white variety – the form we are featuring today. Hardy Orchids add a touch of class to the woodland garden or any partially shady nook. I have no idea why they are not better known.
Bletillas are the easiest of all orchids to grow. Bletilla striata Alba features sprays of about a dozen lightly fragrant, pure white flowers that appear for about 6 weeks in late spring. The blossoms resemble miniature cattleyas, but with unusual pleated tongues. Its ribbed, palm-like arching leaves flutter in the slightest breeze and make an excellent backdrop for the white blooms. Bletillas are superb, unconventional additions to the garden. They reach a height of approximately 18 inches, and they have a preference for partial shade in compost-enhanced, well-drained soil that doesn’t dry out in summer. They can be grown in containers and also as indoor houseplants in a sunny window. As such, they bloom in February.
Hardy in Zones 5 (with protection) – 9.
Place the tuberous roots just below the soil surface.
Choose a semi-shaded location.
Plant in compost-enriched, well-drained soil.
Water regularly in dry periods until established. To ensure good bud-set, pay particular attention to summer watering.
Fertilize in early spring and late fall with Cotton Seed Meal and Kelp Meal. (Holly-tone can be substituted for Cotton Seed Meal after the first year.)
Cut foliage back to the ground in late fall or very early spring.
Mulch well for winter in Zone 5.