Growing orchids outside in Reno, Nevada Part 2:
Bletilla striata “Hardy Orchid”
By Gina Iwahashi – April 10, 2018
My first orchid ever was a tiny Phalaenopsis that my mother handed to me as I moved into my own apartment. I think it was meant as a little piece of house and home, a reassurance and comfort in my new life in a large city: an orchid to remind me of my room attached to the sun porch full of orchids…. Instead, I spent the next weeks eyeballing it and worrying it would be too hot, dry, cold, dark, bright – and I would kill my brand new pet plant. (The happy news is that 15 years later I still have the orchid.)
Now, living in Reno, I still end up with all the same concerns trying to grow orchids. Is it too hot? Cold? Dry? Sunny? Reno has little rainfall, irregular temperatures that routinely drop to 0F (or lower) in the winter and up over 105F in the summer, hot dry wind and alkaline desert soils but there are still beautiful orchids that thrive outside year-round!
Bletilla striata the “Hardy Orchid”, also known as the “Chinese Ground Orchid”, “Urn Orchid” or “hyacinth orchid” is another easy to grow hardy, terrestrial orchid perfect for the climate of Northern Nevada.
Bletilla striata are terrestrial deciduous plants native to China, Japan and large parts of Southeast Asia. They are listed as hardy in USDA zones 5 to 9. The plants have corms from which grow a sheath of long, flat, fibrous leaves like a very tiny palm tree. The whole plant is about two feet tall, with flower stalks that emerge through the middle of the leaves. They have been under cultivation for so long that there are literally dozens of cultivars. Because of their cultivation history, it is difficult to say what the “original” plants looked like, but wild grown plants have cattleya-like dark pink flowers with crinkled white or light pink throats. They are listed in books dating back to 500AD and have been cultivated in England since 1794.
Some notable cultivars include:
Alba – the white flower form, often with yellow throat
Rosea – pale pink flowers
Soryu (translate to “Sky Dragon”) – pastel lavender flowers
New hybrids and cultivars are bred on a regular basis.
Wild growing conditions:
In the wild, Bletilla striata are found growing in meadows, rocky hill slopes and along waterways. I have personally seen them growing happily at the edge of a warm spring in Japan! They thrive with good drainage, lots of water and at least partial sun. They naturalize easily, so are found in massive clumps in gardens, porch pots and windowsills all over the world.
Growing in Reno:
Bletilla striata is not fussy about growing conditions and will grow in un-amended soil in northern Nevada. For best growth though, plant in well drained, amended soil with good watering and mulch the bulbs the first winter to help them establish. Outlying portions of Reno and in the mountains might be dry and cold enough that the plants succeed better when mulched every year to prevent desiccation. They will withstand periods of drought and dry, but not as well as a native such as the Epipactis gigantea. They also can withstand brief periods of submersion, but be wary of crown rot. Bletilla striata is happiest in morning or part sun.
Although Bletilla striata will grow with its bulbs ON the surface of the soil, it is best to put the bulbs at least 5 inches under the soil to start with; they’ll creep out of the ground soon enough…. Expect the plants to die to the ground for the season with the first freeze, but start emerging from the ground in early to mid-spring. This past winter I kept a pot of Bletilla striata alive on my porch. It was not the coldest of winters, and the porch is protected, but it does mean it’s possible!
This orchid mutates readily, a clump of “wild” pink Bletilla striata may over time develop offsets with variegated foliage, flower shape changes or new colors. Plants typically bloom in mid to late spring. In happy plants, every corm will have a flower stalk, and every flower stalk up to a dozen flowers blooming in succession. A happy clump may increase in size up to 6 inches a year as the plants produce offsets. As the clump gets much bigger (10 feet or so), fertilizer or thinning may be required to keep the center bulbs blooming.
Bletilla striata can and do propagate from seed without sterile conditions. I have not tried it, but the suggestion I found online were to dump the contents of the seed heads into fine humus.
Because these orchids naturalize easily, please do not dump them in your local stream, pond or marshland! I am all in favor of growing wonderful orchids from all over the world, but please don’t crowd out native plants!
Where to buy:
This is an easy-to-find orchid usually sold as a bare bulb. (I even found a listing selling them online through Home Depot….)
Greenhouse Garden Center in Carson City had Bletilla striata in the summer of 2017.
If you would like to read more of Gina’s Blogs, find her here: SumireDesigns