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Oregon’s Outdoor Orchids

[Dig Deep]

Ann Jaeger

Oregon’s Outdoor Orchids

Orchids are the supermodels of the plant world; beautiful, but ever so intimidating. Gardeners dismiss them as difficult, temperamental or persnickety hot house flowers. But all this name calling is completely undeserved.

Most people are surprised to find out you can actually grow orchids outdoors in Oregon. Sean McMillen of Hana Farms in West Linn can’t understand it; “Ground orchids are as easy to grow as tulips,” he says. “You can’t kill them!” Commonly called “Chinese ground orchids” because of their centuries old popularity in Asia, outdoor orchids came west years ago and have been featured in the Portland Classical Chinese Garden since it opened. Some varieties live outside all winter, and their neon colored flowers will put a zip in our rainy weather.

Ground orchids are very different from the greenhouse orchids that grow in pots of bark in florist shops. At home on the surface bark of rain forest trees, those epiphytic plants require water, fertilizer and the perfect air temperature to survive indoors in this region. Terrestrial orchids are much more self-sufficient; they want their roots in soil and draw their needs from the earth.

Two types of ground orchids are stand outs—Bletilla for its colorful and reliable nature and Cymbidium for its fragrance and long blooming season. If you can imagine a hyacinth flower on steroids then you’ve got a picture of a Bletilla in full bloom, throwing up flower spikes that are 15 inches tall. In his new book Growing Hardy Orchids, John Turlock calls it the “queen of the hardy orchid” due to the unusual form, color and fragrance of its flowers. Each stem has up to a dozen tiny florets that open sequentially, so the plant stays color-charged for weeks. The flowers of the Bletilla striata, the hardiest of this species, come in extraordinary hues—white and various bright purples. The five petals of the purple Bletilla striata open to reveal a pinkish purple trumpet and a frilled lip with white tips and amethyst-red stripes.

Consider planting Bletillas in front of hostas, ferns, Solomon’s seal and heuchera, perennials that come back every year with lovely leaves, but lack the orchids’ eye- catching color. But don’t hesitate to plant them pretty much wherever you like. “I plant Bletillas in lousy soil, sun, shade, whatever and they still keep blooming….and for a long period of time,” says McMillen. They even survive cold winters.

For the most part, all that’s required to successfully raise Bletillas is keeping them moist during dry spells. They get cranky in bone dry soil and hot, hot sun. If you have especially dry, clay soil, amend it with a little peat moss, pumice and compost. These are readily available at most garden centers, and staff can advise you on appropriate proportions for your particular soil. And to further improve your chances for success, buy plants directly from local nurseries.

If you want ground orchids that look more like indoor varieties, Cymbidium sinense or goeringii are good choices. Most of the experts say the delicate winter blooms of Cymbidium goeringii smell just like a full bowl of fresh lemons. The Japanese call Cymbidium sinense ‘Horsairan’ meaning “orchid which tells the new year” because it blooms so early in February. The leaves resemble blades of grass, while the miniature flowers are very dainty in contrast. Five pointed chartreuse green petals with deep purple veins open to reveal what looks like a snap-dragon flower in the center. This part of the flower shows a yellow lip with purplish-red spots.

Cymbidiums prefer to be planted in compost and require outdoor temperatures of about 40 degrees to produce flowers. Water is necessary only when the compost is no longer moist to the touch.

Plant them in pots on the front porch so you can move them indoors when they flower in February—or whenever the weather dips below 20 degrees, a protective measure that isn’t necessary very often in Portland’s mild climate.

In fact, although growers are noticing a renewed interest in hardy orchids, you’re lucky enough to live in one of the few places in the country where they grow well. So, don’t let the name put you off. Stick with the right varieties, and you’ll be rewarded with flowers fit for a diva, without breaking a nail.


Learn More:

Growing Hardy Orchids by John Tullock

Growing Orchids in Your Garden by Robert Friend

The Gardener’s Guide to Growing Hardy Perennial Orchids by William Mathis

Native Orchids of Oregon Oregon Orchid Society $5 (to order, e-mail orchids@xpert.net)