Plants can’t read

Cyclamen hederifolium

The books all say that Cyclamen hederifolium (ivy-leafed cyclamen) blooms late summer into autumn, but most of my plants started flowering just before the solstice.  At this time of year, there’s so much else going on in the garden that it’s easy to overlook these little pink flowers in the darkest spots under the deciduous canopy.

The easiest orchid?

Bletilla striata. Typical pink flowered form.

People who don’t grow orchids often consider them to be difficult.  People who do grow orchids sometimes feel the same way about terrestrial orchids, particularly hardy species.  Your average orchid grower is perfectly happy messing around with ultrasonic humidifiers, high tech fertilizers, and complex potting mixes containing exotic and expensive materials, both organic and inorganic, in an attempt to grow a delicate little epiphyte from Borneo or the Peruvian cloud forest.  But give them an orchid that grows in the ground outside, and they are at a loss.

Bletilla striata, the Chinese ground orchid, is one species that defies the expectations of both orchid growers and those who just admire orchids from afar.  It’s a terrestrial orchid that is very easy to grow, and given a modicum of care it will steadily increase in size until you have a huge clump to impress your friends.  If you can grow a daffodil, you can probably grow Bletilla.

My five-year old clump of Bletilla striata grown from a single pseudobulb in a 3-inch pot.  It probably clashes with the red  Aquilegia canadensis and lavendar Iris tectorum that grow all around it, but no one ever accused me of having good color sense.

According to IOSPE, Bletilla striata is native to China, Korea, and Japan (people in the latter nation might have something to say about calling it the Chinese ground orchid).  I’m not sure where in its fairly wide native range the plants in cultivation originate, but they are certainly cold hardy. My plant has easily survived 5 F (-15 C), and the species is reported to be hardy in USDA Zone 5 (-10 to -20 F, -23 to -29 C winter minimum) with protection.  My plant is growing in my standard mix of native clay and permatill, top-dressed with hardwood mulch, but any reasonably well-drained, slightly acidic garden soil would probably be fine.  Morning sun and some afternoon shade will provide sufficient light for flowering without scorching the leaves.

The flowers are relatively short-lived and don’t have the greatest form, but the buds open successively for several weeks.  In addition to the standard pink form, there are alba (white-flowered) and coerulea (“blue”) forms.  Several clones with variegated leaves are also widely distributed.  This spring, I obtained several pseudobulbs of an alba clone at a very reasonable price from one of the big bulb vendors.  I’ll be interested to see if it grows as easily as the typical form.

If Bletilla striata has a flaw, it is its eagerness to grow in early spring, at least in our mild climate.  The pseudobulbs are fairly close to the soil surface, so they warm up quickly and often initiate new growth in February, long before the last freezing weather.  Although dormant plants are very cold hardy, the new leaves, and especially the flower buds which emerge simultaneously with the leaves, are very sensitive to frost.  Leaves will continue growing even if the tips freeze, but frozen buds mean no flowers until next year.

This past winter, we had very warm weather in February, and new growth was well under way when a low of 25 F (-4 C) was forecast.  In an effort to save inflorescences that were already starting to emerge, I covered the entire clump with a black plastic cement mixing tub and several inches of mulch.  I keep several of these sturdy tubs around to serve as water reservoirs for potted bog plants, and they are also very useful for covering tender plants.  After several days, I removed the tub so that the new growth wouldn’t rot in the humid darkness and then replaced it again when more freezing weather was forecast.  The procedure was labor intensive but worked perfectly, and this year’s display of flowers is probably the best yet.

Calanthe update

In my post about Calanthe sieboldii, I mentioned that the hybrid Calanthe Takane was in bud.  The flowers are now open, and I am quite pleased.  C. Takane is a cross of C. sieboldii and the much smaller and less colorful, but hardier, C. discolor.  My C. Takane shows its parentage in the yellow lip (from C. sieboldii) and reddish brown sepals and petals (from C. discolor).  It is intermediate in size between its two parents.  Take a look:

Calanthe Takane (C. discolor x C. sieboldii)

Pulmonaria ‘Trevi Fountain’

Pulmonaria ‘Trevi Fountain’ is currently blooming in the garden.  Its flowers attract the early carpenter bees, when they aren’t too busy trying to bore holes in the side of our house.

Pulmonaria ‘Trevi Fountain’

For a long time, I ignored lungworts.  They’re from Europe, which to me suggests a plant that probably won’t be happy during our summer, and they are reportedly subject to mildew in hot, humid weather.  Indeed, by late spring, the potted plants at local garden centers often look fairly ratty.  But a couple of years ago, I ran across Pulmonaria ‘Trevi Fountain’ and was hooked by its beautiful blue flowers and the claim that it is heat tolerant and mildew resistant

Pulmonaria ‘Trevi Fountain’ is a hybrid of Pulmonaria longifolia ‘Bertram Anderson’ and Pulmonaria ‘Marjery Fish’ which is variously listed as either a selection of Pulmonaria vallarsae or a hybrid with P. vallarsae in its background.  P. longifolia is from western Europe–Britain south to Spain and Portugal–while P. vallarsae is from Italy.  Whatever mix of genes P. ‘Trevi Fountain’ inherited, it adapts well to the North Carolina piedmont.

In my garden, it starts blooming in February and continues into late spring.  The leaves wilt in hot sun, but as long as the soil is moist, they perk up again in the evening.  As advertised, they do seem to be mildew resistant. I have several plants in parts of the garden where they receive afternoon shade, and the foliage looks pretty good year round.  In winter, the leaves collapse and lie flat on the ground, but they nevertheless add interest to barren flower beds when all the bulbs and most of the other perennials are sleeping snug under the mulch.  By late January, new leaves start to emerge, and the old foliage dies back.  So far, P. ‘Trevi Fountain’ shows no inclination to be invasive in my garden, and it plays well with native woodland species like Arisaema triphyllum, Spigelia marilandica, and Aquilegia canadensis.

The color of Pulmonaria ‘Trevi Fountain’ flowers is difficult to capture. To the eye, they are more blue than they appear in this image.