Orchids have a reputation for being difficult and success with them was once regarded as the ultimate test of a competent gardener. Yet those who grow them claim they no more demanding than other plants - just that they sometimes have to be treated differently. At this stage I am still a relative beginner with orchids, but judging by general experience, I imagine that many things are easy if you have the appropriate knowledge, the facilities and are fluent in the techniques. Orchids can certainly be grown by an averagely competent gardener but I would hesitate in calling them easy - although there are a few species which can be literally shoved into a hole in the garden and then almost forgotten about. The difficulty probably stems mainly from the lack of detailed cultural information regarding this intriguing family of plants. This is now gradually being addressed as the popularity of orchids increases. Furthermore, many of them have been difficult to obtain as well as being expensive making experimentation a somewhat risky business.
All orchid seeds require very special conditions if they are to germinate; moreover, seedlings take many years to reach maturity. Commercial growers are able to use this and micro-propagation to produce vast numbers of young plants. This is not a the gardner would take preferring to propagate orchids vegetatively by dividing their pseudobulbs in the same way as the splitting of any other groups of bulbs, corms or tubers. This method gives much smaller numbers of plants but has the virtue of producing good-sized specimens. The key here is to know when to dig up and divide so as not to create setbacks or even destruction of the plants.
It will hardly come as a surprise to discover that not all orchids are attractive or worth growing. This is a general observation applying to plants of all families and genera. There is one orchid, Bletilla striata from China, which is both strikingly attractive and remarkably easy to grow. Depending on variety the colours range from white, through pink to a deep purple. There is a variegated variety but I have found it to be far less vigorous than the green-leaved type. Bletilla striata takes a few degrees of frost in its stride, grows well both in sun and semi-shade and seems happy in most garden soils provided they contain organic matter and are not waterlogged. It is best planted (or re-planted) soon after flowering. In a friend's garden a very large clump has grown for many years on a dry and hot sunny bank.
Bletilla striata is thus an undemanding plant which gives 'full value for money' and can be left undisturbed (other than occasional high potash feeding to encourage good flowering) for many years. Often available in garden centres it can literally be shoved into a hole in the ground and treated as any other rhizomatous perennial. A decent-sized clump will eventually develop but it may take a few years.
The European genus Dactylorhiza (Marsh Orchids) has several available species which are fully hardy and easy to grow. Most prefer an alkaline soil. Jeff Hutchings of the Hardy Orchid Nursery in Lancashire mentions that Dactylorhiza fuchsii, the Common Spotted Marsh Orchid, often seeds itself into gardeners' forgotten pots of soil and make its presence known only when it first flowers! At Southern Comfort we have had D. maculata (the Spotted Heath Orchid) growing for some three years. Its spread, however, has been less than impressive and we need to lift and reposition it where it will have more light. At Ray Brown's Nursery, Plant World in Newton Abbot, both D. maculata and D. foliosa (syn. maderensis) grow successfully on the dryish, sunny banks surrounding the plant sales area. D. maculata, which has attractively mottled foliage, prefers acid soil.
Epipactis is another reputedly easy genus of which we are trying out Epipactis gigantea (the Stream Orchid from North America) in a damp patch of soil at the end of the rill. In the wild, it grows in similarly damp conditions. Other hardy or near hardy orchids which are probably worth a try are Calanthe (many species available but not all hardy) and Pleione formosana.
This is perhaps the most famous orchid genus - that of the Slipper Orchids. The only British native, Cypripedium calceolus (the Lady's Slipper Orchid) almost became extinct here in recent years as a result of over-collecting (a habit dating back hundreds of years) but is now in the process of making a comeback. We do not have this species at Southern Comfort although it is available from nurserymen and dealers. However, there are many other Cypripedium species (North American and Asiatic) and some, including C. calceolus and various hybrids, have been intensively propagated by commercial nurseries. Most, with some notable exceptions, prefer a pH on the higher side of 7 and are hardy provided the soil conditions are optimal.
Two related North American species caught my eye because they are similar to the British and European native. They are Cypripedium parviflorum and Cypripedium pubescens. I have obtained what may be a hybrid of the two or possibly C. pubescens itself. The plant was marketed under the name of Cypripedium 'Pueblo'. The flowers were captivating to observe and the plant, repotted into a mixture of loam and pumice, survived the winter with no protection against damp or cold and began to produce buds at the beginning of March eventually doubling in size by June.
Another one to try is C. reginae, also form North America. This plant has reddish pouches and comes highly recommended by Jeff Hutchings (who also supplies it).
Most orchid growers express surprise whenever I mention that I have cymbidiums growing outside all year round. "Too risky", "They're tender", "'Come off it", "Sooner or later you'll lose 'em all"' are amongst the more optimistic answers. There may be something in this but in the meantime they have given me much fun and pleasure. I would not wish to be without them.
I have grown cymbidiums outside for some years, both in pots and in the ground. Flowering is sporadic and unpredictable; fortunately, with the number of plants I have I am seldom disappointed. Although in the wild this genus is epiphytic it adapts well to growing in a pot or in the ground provided it is provided with a very well-drained acidic medium with bark chippings and the like. Because cymbidiums are large plants they do not dry out easily (which they must not be allowed to) and the medium (whether in a pot or in the ground) requires only occasional watering. I generally give a high potash feed from
The most robust and hardy of the genus are reputed to be Cymbidium tracyanum and C. georingii. Cymbidium tracyanum is, in my view, also one of the most attractive with purple and green striped petals and a generally chunky feel to the whole plant. Cymbidium hybrids seem to possess varying degrees of hardiness as well as varying degrees of appeal. I have acquired many at the end of their flowering season when garden centres try to unload weary-looking unsellable plants at knock-down prices. They always recover quickly and within a few months look none the worse for wear.
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