Jennifer Schultz Nelson
Extension Educator, Horticulture
Every gardener I know, including myself, seems to want what they don't have. Shade—just a little bit—is something I long for. Moving into an absolutely empty landscape four years ago means my trees are a long way from providing significant shade to my gardens. I have one corner of partial shade for which I am always looking for unusual plants. It's the only semi-shady place I have, and I don't want to waste it on just any old shade plant.
Orchids are one of my favorites for growing indoors, and I toyed with the idea of planting hardy lady slipper orchids in my partial shade area. I quickly changed my mind, as my initial investigations into growing hardy lady slipper orchids revealed they were way out of my price range at $50 on up for a single plant. In my opinion that was way too much money to spend on a plant for a garden I had really no experience with at that time.
It was a wise choice, as a short time after moving in a storm revealed major drainage problems in this area. Thankfully we only lost annuals and a small dogwood tree. After fixing the drainage problem and waiting through a storm or two to make sure it really was fixed, I was free to plant. And plant I did.
My initial planting efforts were limited to a few small shrubs and some hostas from a friend's garden. It looked nice, but I wanted something different for this space. Hardy lady slipper orchids were (and still are) not in the budget. Then while perusing a garden catalog I spotted Bletilla striata, a native to China, Japan and Tibet also known as Chinese Ground Orchid.
I had heard of Bletilla striata before, but as an orchid that was only marginally hardy here. People I knew had planted this orchid in pots that they overwintered in their garage, but I had never known anyone to plant it directly in the ground successfully.
The catalog I had listed Bletilla striata as hardy to Zone 5, our Zone in central Illinois. Other sources I found listed Zone 6 as its limit, one Zone warmer than central Illinois. Technically central Illinois is Zone 5b, the southern half of Zone 5, and fairly close to the beginning of Zone 6. I figured that growing Bletilla striata in a sheltered spot like my semi-shady area had a decent chance of being successful. Plus, they only cost $7 in the catalog I had. A great bargain if I was successful at growing them, and not a huge loss if my efforts failed.
I ordered two of the corms, also called pseudobulbs. One was for the standard pinkish-purple flowered Bletilla striata, the other was for the white flowered Bletilla striata 'alba'. I was not successful in getting the pseudobulbs to grow. It wasn't the plants' faults—I simply ran out of time that spring, and was late in getting the pseudobulbs planted. They should have been planted soon after I received them, and I simply got too busy with other spring activities at home and work.
Later that summer I found Bletilla striata plants at a local garden center. They cost only $10 each. I purchased one of the purple and one of the white flowered plants and wondered if I was wasting my money. The plants' new home was in the now well-drained, rich soil of my partially shaded garden bed sheltered on the north side of my house. I planted them and crossed my fingers. It was too late for flowers that year, as they flower in late spring/early summer, but I hoped they would at least survive the winter.
The following year, I was disappointed to find that the white flowered 'alba' had not survived the winter. My disappointment turned to excitement when I saw tiny green shoots of the purple flowered Bletilla striata appear. Each leaf originates from the pseudobulb underground and appears pleated, reaching a maximum height of about 12 to 18 inches.
Later that spring, I was thrilled to find a flower spike slowly making its way skyward. The spike produced several pinkish-purple nodding flowers. The flowers resemble small two inch cattleya orchids—the type of orchid traditionally used in corsages.
This year my Bletilla striata overwintered again successfully, however it did not flower. Missouri Botanical Garden suggests that a good practice to increase winter hardiness of Bletilla striata in Zone 5 is an extra layer of mulch. Additional mulch for protection against last year's harsh winter would have probably helped shield the flower spike developing within the pseudobulb. This year I will add some extra mulch and hope for flowers next spring.