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Tales from a Plant Addict

Fun (& a few serious) facts, tips and tricks for every gardener, new and old.

Bletilla striata-- Chinese Ground Orchid

Every gardener I know, including myself, seems to want what they don't have. In my garden, shade is in short supply. Even though it's been ten years since we moved into an absolutely empty landscape, my trees are a long way from providing significant shade to my gardens. I now have two gardens where there is partial shade for at least a portion of the day, and whatever direct sun they get is in the early morning or later in the day. I am always looking for unusual plants for these spaces.

Orchids are one of my favorites for growing indoors, and when we first moved into our home 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.

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 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, the Zone where my garden is. Other sources I found listed Zone 6 as its limit, one Zone warmer. According to the new Hardiness Zone map published in 2012, the "north half" (with Decatur being about the dividing line) of central Illinois is Zone 5b, the southern half is now Zone 6a. I figured that growing Bletilla striata in a sheltered spot like my semi-shady area had a decent chance of being successful. I found a gallon pot of the purple-flowered Bletilla striata as well as the white flowered variety 'alba' at a local garden center for only $10. A great bargain if I was successful at growing them, and not a huge loss if my efforts failed.

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. Today, six years later, the plant has multiplied considerably and there were at dozens of flower spikes gracing my garden last year. Judging by the number of shoots that have made an appearance so far, I wouldn't be surprised if I had at least 50 flower spikes this year.

I also found success with another purple-flowered variety of Bletilla striata -- 'Big Bob'. It has been in my garden for five years now, and has multiplied considerably and is taller and a bit earlier blooming than the straight species. It's worth noting that both of the Bletillas in my garden have continued to multiply and bloom despite little to no attention and care from me for the last two years—being mom to my energetic son has absorbed much of my gardening time.

As my confidence grows with the success of Bletilla in my garden, I am re-considering trying the hardy lady slipper orchids. My son is showing interest in the garden—what two year old boy doesn't want to dig holes and play in the dirt—so maybe I will have a chance to add some new orchids to my garden this year. I will be sure to report back on the results!

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