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Hardy Orchids in Northwest

Anne Jaeger

20 years ago, a friend handed Dick Cavendar of Sherwood scads of shriveled brown leaves in tiny pots and announced “Here, you oughta grow these.” The friend was going out of business and dying of kidney failure, so Cavendar didn’t have the heart to say “No, Thank You.” Cavendar shoved the odd shaped bulbs in a corner of his greenhouse and forgot all about them.  By spring, the plants were shouting at him. Imagine an big orchid with nothing but flower coming out of a short green sleeve. I’m sure there’s a perfectly plausible, albeit academic, explanation for the way a hardy orchid blooms, but its flower power confounds even the best of ‘um. Cavendar (his friends call him “Red”) says “I haven’t the slightest idea. I honestly couldn’t tell you how it’s possible that a bulb the size of a walnut can produce a three inch long flower” every year with so little care.  And if that doesn’t get your attention, the Pleione (say: plea-o-knee) orchid blooms at this time of year, outside without any leaves or roots to speak of. Now that is a feat!

Plant it in the shade nestled in the moss of a decomposing log or in a mossy hanging basket and people will stop, stunned as if they’ve hit a sliding glass door.  Pleoine formosona  “Hot Pants” is a cheeky little number.  It might not be obvious to the rest of you, but I think it actually has quite a bit in common with Napoleon Bonaparte. It’s short, colorful, has a big mouth (called a maw) and is quite sure of itself. It demands attention, then again, what “Hot Pants” don’t?  I’ve grown ‘Polar Sun’ (white flower with yellow marks) and ‘Blush of Dawn’ (pale lavender) for several years. And I’ve got to be honest, I haven’t taken very good care of them. Most of the year, the pseudobulb is in the cold frame in a pot, where it just sits like a green blob on top of the soil. About the only thing you need to remember about hardy orchids is not to bury the bulb. I keep it cool, moist and in the shade during the summer when my ADpD (attention deficit plant disorder) has me running around the rest of the yard tittering about all the other flowers on show. Just about now, I run out to the cold frame start pleading to get back into the pleione’s good graces.  No need.  It’s already blooming without me.  This year, I’ll show it off by allowing the flower to spring out the top of a wire teapot outside my kitchen window.  Growing hardy orchids is a guilty pleasure.  They look so good, even when you’ve been a bad gardener.