By: Jessie Keith
If you love orchids and outdoor gardening, then it’s time to welcome some beautiful hardy orchids into your garden this season! There are a surprising number of garden-grown orchids available at garden centers and specialty nurseries these days and many are surprisingly easy to grow. Once they put forth their first delicate blooms of the season, you’ll be hooked.
More and more hardy, terrestrial (ground growing) orchids have become available to gardeners in recent years. Some are available as species that originate from North America, temperate Europe, and Asia. Still more are hybrids and cultivated varieties that have been bred to feed the growing hardy orchid market. These delicate, beautiful flowers have a magic all of their own and serious gardeners want them!
Best Hardy Orchids for Gardens
Most hardy orchids prefer filtered to partial sun and thrive in moist, organic-rich soil that drains well, while others naturally grow in open fields or forest margins where its sunnier and soils are drier. Most listed are bee pollinated. Here are some beautiful hardy orchid options for the garden, which are adapted to various growing conditions. (All will appreciate fertile garden soil amended with Fafard® Premium Natural & Organic Compost.)
Japanese Ground Orchids
Beautiful Japanese ground orchids (Bletilla spp.) are some of the easiest to grow and buy at nurseries. The most common of these is the Asian Bletilla striata (USDA Hardiness Zones 6 to 9), a pink- to purplish-red-flowered orchid with broad evergreen leaves. The spreading orchid naturally inhabits forests and grasslands and will bloom from April to May. There are many varieties available these days in different shades of pink. The pale-yellow-flowered (Bletilla ochracea) is an equally hardy ground orchid that blooms from June to August. Both species are tolerant or partial to full sun and require moist, well-drained soil.
Chinese Ground Orchids
These are hardy Asian orchids in the genus Calanthe. Their showy blooms may be white, yellow, pink or purplish-pink. One prolific species is C. discolor (USDA Hardiness Zones 6 to 9) a spreading, evergreen orchid from the forests of Japan and Korea. Its tall flower scapes become covered with delicate flowers of maroon and green with white lower lips and typically flower from April to May. The bold, yellow-flowered C. sieboldii (USDA Hardiness Zones 7 to 9) is another forest species from Korea, Japan, and southwestern Taiwan. It blooms earlier in the season, starting as early as late February in warmer climates. It’s bold, pleated evergreen leaves give rise to upright stems of large, primrose yellow flowers. Grow these in partial shade to filtered sun soil that is slightly moist with good drainage.
The remarkably hardy tuberous grasspink (Calopogon tuberosus) will survive in moist meadow plantings or boggy gardens in USDA Hardiness Zones 3 to 9. This bumblebee-pollinated species has lovely pink (rarely white) flowers that bloom through summer. Give this one full sun to partial shade.
Lady slippers (Cypripedium spp.) are iconic American and European orchids that were difficult to find at nurseries, until recently. Breeders have been keen to cross classic species, like the pink and white showy lady’s slipper (Cypripedium reginae) and golden yellow and green giant yellow lady slipper (Cypripedium parviflorum var. pubescens). Some of the more spectacular hybrids include the vigorous, gold-and-maroon-flowered Cypripedium Frosch®, and pink-and rose-flowered Cypripedium ‘Philipp’. Most are remarkably hardy, surviving in USDA Hardiness Zones 4 to 7 or colder, and require light shade to partial sun, and moist soil with good to moderate drainage.
The flowers of lady’s tresses (Spiranthes spp.) are unique in that the small white, yellow, red, or pink flowers spiral down the tall flower scapes. There are many species existing across the Americas and Eurasia. One of the finest for performance is the award-winning Chadds Ford nodding ladies’ tresses (Spiranthes cernua ‘Chadds Ford’). Spiranthes cernua is a white-flowered species that originates from the eastern United States, and ‘Chadds Ford’ has extra-large blooms. The Asian pink ladies’ tresses (Spiranthes sinensis) is another delicate species for the garden that produces spiraled spires of pink flowers. All lady’s tresses grow well in full to partial sun and fertile, moist soils that drain well.
Native across Eurasia and the Middle East, marsh orchids (Dactylorhiza spp.) are characterized by their cylindrical scapes densely lined with pink, purplish, or white flowers. They naturally inhabit marshy ground and moist grasslands, so they appreciate moist soil and full to partial sun. The variety ‘Foliorella’ (D. foliosa x D. purpurella) is one of the best for gardens. It produces 2- to 3-foot spires of brilliant purple-pink flowers that bloom from May to June. They will grow quickly to great quite a late-spring show.
The diminutive but elegant peacock orchids (Pleione spp.) bloom in spring with glorious purple-pink, yellow, or white flowers that appear just before or as new leaves unfurl. Most species are native from western Taiwan through to China and Nepal, and most species sold for the garden are hardy in USDA Hardiness Zones 7 to 9. One of the finest for the garden is P. formosana, which has the brightest of all peacock orchid flowers. Grow these in partial shade and organic-rich soil with good drainage. They spread by pseudobulbs that should be covered with leaves in winter for extra protection.
Another important factor is purchasing hardy orchids from reliable nurseries. Some disreputable sellers offer wild-collected orchids because many orchids are difficult to propagate. This is wild-plant poaching and a crime. (Click here to read more about how to avoid buying poached rare native plants.) Reputable hardy orchid sellers include Plant Delights, Keeping it Green Nursery, and Fraser’s Thimble Farm. Some of the most prized orchids they sell may be a bit pricy, but if you purchase a few here and there over time, you will eventually have an enviable orchid garden.
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