I have to smile when I walk into Trader Joe’s and see a huge display of orchids for sale, because there was once a time when one really had to work to find them for sale around here at any price. I remember begging my dad to take me to the Norfolk Botanical Gardens when I was a kid, not to explore the azalea collection, but because they carried Cattleya seedlings in their gift shop for the (then) princely sum of $5. Occasionally Smithfield Gardens, a few miles from my childhood home, would receive shipments of orchid plants, and we would take a trip out there just to see them. In my teens I discovered Berryman’s Orchids, a small, private greenhouse located on route 17 in York County, and would lobby hard to be driven there on special occasions. Ironically, I now live less than 5 miles from this location, but it’s now covered by a Walmart parking lot. It goes without saying that I was a strange kid, in more ways than one; I wish I could say that I outgrew those quirks, but that would be disingenuous to say the least.
Over the intervening years I amassed an orchid collection which numbered into the hundreds, mostly Cattleya alliance meristems and seedlings, interspersed with a few species and oddities, all tropical. In 1994, when we moved to our present house, the first order of business was the construction of a “greenhouse” (really a ramshackle fiberglass structure) to house the plants. All was well for several years, until an insidious infestation of scale began to claim my treasures, one by one. At present I have about 5 of these originals left, and even these are harboring insect populations. No amount of spraying, scrubbing, dipping, or brushing has eliminated the problem, and it’s probably just as well. Most tropical orchids have lost their appeal to me since they are now so readily available. It’s kind of sad to see these plants reduced to florist gift status, to be tossed aside after blooming or left to languish in saucers of water on countless kitchen windowsills. All that having been said, I’m still intrigued by orchids, and growing them has served me well as an introduction to perennial gardening, since the growth habits of sympodial species so clearly illustrates classic rhizomatous growth and its implications in terms of propagation and growth cycles. Growing up as an aspiring grower of epiphytic orchids taught me well about the need all plants have, to varying degrees, for proper drainage. I still grow lots of orchids, but my attention has now turned mostly to the terrestrial species, and particularly to those which are considered to be hardy in our climate.
As mentioned in a previous post, my attraction to growing the “hardy” orchids can be traced back to childhood adventures in the woods with my grandmother. The flame of the obsession was fanned, however, with the acquisition of some books which, I now realize, are completely evil. “Hardy Orchids”, along with two of the Kew monographs, one on Pleiones and another on Cypripediums, have tortured me from the minute they hit the shelves of my considerable collection of gardening books with pictures and descriptions of the varieties of orchids which are considered hardy, at least in the more temperate areas of England. Never mind that our climate does not remotely resemble that of England; every year these books find their way to the “front burner” of my primary reading stack (located, of course, in the bathroom), and every year I find myself fabricating some new scheme to attempt growing the ungrowable. This sickness was relatively harmless, if frustrating, in pre-internet days, but now almost all of these orchids can be had (for a price) by anyone with a modest ability to use a search engine. They can all be killed, too, and much more quickly than the “plastic” Catts and Phals available on every corner.
As also detailed in an earlier article, Bletillas are one of my favorite genera, and can (in most cases) be grown outside here in Tidewater. I am still learning how to grow the evergreen Calanthes; these are Asian woodland orchids which want that classic oxymoron – moist, well drained soil – and to be kept cool in summer. Maintaining these conditions here in July and August can be a tall order, as is keeping the dormant (but still green) plants between 28 and 50 degrees or so in the winter in order to maintain dormancy. At present I’m growing them in deep, gravelly raised beds which are covered throughout the winter with cold frames. This is more life support than I’d like to provide for a “hardy” plant, but I try not to apply logic to my gardening projects too often – it just makes my head hurt. The plants are growing well, but bloom this year is sparse, perhaps an effect of last fall’s nasty drought and my fear of applying too much supplemental water to this fungus-prone genus. Among my failures are many of the Pleiones – beautiful bulbs shipped from the Pacific Northwest decline over one or two years until they’re tiny, non-flowering nubs which are incapable of producing blooms. I have a few bulbs of P. bulbocodioides and limprichtii left, and I’m trying them in a “plunge” bed this summer – I’m hoping the osmotic effect of this setup will result in evaporative cooling of the planting medium without creating the temptation to overwater.
The Cypripediums are another story, and success varies widely for me within this genus. This probably has to do with provenance, since species range from C. kentuckiense, which is reported to grow as far south as Louisiana, and wild populations of which have been reported growing on Virginia’s Northern Neck, only a bit colder than Newport News in general. Not surprisingly, kentuckiense and its hybrids have been most successful for me as garden subjects. I grow all of my cyps in large (half barrel-sized) containers, in a mix of perlite, fine fir bark, and crushed granite; feeding is accomplished with applications of osmocote a couple of times each year. Too much organic matter is a sure invitation to fungal infections, apparently, as is anything less than perfect drainage. The closely related C. pubescens is much less dependable for me, frequently succumbing to a stem rot which is indicated by the sickening leaning of the plant against the interior of its wire growing enclosure; I can spot this situation from a distance by now. C. reginae grows well enough, provided it does not burn in the summer sun; unfortunately, the amount of light necessary for bloom production is also likely to burn the foliage here in summer. C. japonica and formosana seem to do fairly well, but their early emergence from dormancy (often during one of our “false” springs that occur in February) makes their hardiness questionable here; they usually end up as cool greenhouse subjects by spring. C. acaule, the pink lady slipper of my childhood, is a perpetual failure for me, even growing in media “imported” from the sandy, acidic Southampton County soils which it colonizes naturally.
I also grow several Paphiopedilums mostly species and hybrids of the parvisepalum group; kept in a cool greenhouse over the winter, on the dry side, these are much easier to manage than the Cyps., which is kind of ironic. Phragmipediums have not been as successful, but I have a couple which bloom only occasionally.
Other completely hardy orchids I grow with varying degrees of success are Spiranthes cernua (widely available, easy to grow in moist soils, but not very spectacular);
Calopogon tuberosus (good as companion plants for Sarracenias); Habenaria (Platanthera) ciliaris (this invariably blooms while I’m on vacation, so I usually only get to see the buds and spent bloom spikes - last summer I happened to be at home); Aplectrum hyemale; Epipactis thunbergii, and Habenaria (Pectelis) radiata. I would classify all of these as interesting, but not particularly showy (with the possible exception of the Calopogons) in a landscape situation. Below is Dactylorhiza fuschii; I'm still learning to grow this one, and it's beginning to flag during our current heat wave. I may have to resign myself to the fact that this is one orchid which needs to live in a cooler climate.
Recently I’ve begun collecting orchid species which, though tropical in origin and requiring winter protection, produce the bulk of their blooms when placed outside for the summer. Given some winter warmth, Spathoglottis species and hybrids are among the longest blooming and easiest orchids I’ve ever grown, requiring only heat, light, and moisture to put on a spectacular show for over a month each summer. I know this goes against my “if they sell it at the big box stores, I don’t want it” philosophy, but I purchased my first plant of S. plicata for $3 on a clearance table at Walmart – it had no blooms and no label. Bletias (tropical American counterparts of Bletillas) are likewise semi-terrestrial, producing pleated foliage in the greenhouse all winter which drops as the bloom spikes begin to form in late spring. These can placed around the garden as the weather warms to bloom for an extended period, and summer drought hardly affects them at all, since their dormancy naturally occurs then. Beautiful but fleeting are the Sobralias, whose blooms resemble those of Cattleyas but last only a day each (below is S. xantholeuca, or leucoxantha, depending on your source of information). Thunia alba bears graceful blooms which last for a few days, produced in clusters at the ends of the pendulous, biennial pseudobulbs. These drop their leaves in fall and can be stored in a cool (but not freezing), dry place until spring, when they’re hung outside and triggered into growth by warmth and moisture. After blooming, the pseudobulbs can be laid sideways on moist sphagnum, where they will produce sturdy plantlets at the nodes along each stem.
Some of the “miniature” cymbidiums have been successful as “drop in” plants, blooming outdoors during our long, warm autumns, although the plants have now gotten so large that moving them in and out can be a hardship. C. goeringii is hardy in this zone, but I haven’t found a location that provides enough light and drainage to coax it into bloom as a garden plant.
There are even a few epiphytes which I’ve come to think of as garden plants. The reed-stemmed Epidendrums have become almost weedy; last fall, having run out of time but not wanting to leave them to the frost, I gathered a dozen or more keikis (small plants produced along the stems), tossed them into a plastic basket with no medium, and hung it in a corner of the greenhouse. One small plant of Broughtonia sanguinea alba (really a pale yellow) has grown for years on no medium – it’s tied to a wire hanger with its roots completely exposed – and faithfully produces a bloom spike that blooms throughout July. Numerous other twig epiphytes use almost no space, parked among the branches of shrubs during the warm months. The only cultural difficulty they present is remembering to bring them in before the temperatures plummet in November.
I know it’s cheating to consider most orchids viable candidates for inclusion in the mixed border, but I have enjoyed figuring out ways to integrate them into my “jungle”. For a few months each year, at any rate, they, along with various palms, aroids, and “temperennials”, give us a cut-rate approximation of a trip to the tropics. Now if only we had room for a pool…
(This is C. Valentine 'Coerulea' parked in a tree for the summer.)