The right orchids work as well in temperate British gardens as in subtropical forests, so plant bulbs now and enjoy flowers for years to come
It’s finally March and we’ve already had the first signs of spring. If the arrival of blackbird song and daffodils are wonderful enough on their own, they are also the gardener’s cue to plant summer bulbs for a season of colour ahead. However, beyond the garden-centre mainstays of giant hybrid dahlias and petal-packed begonias, there are amazing finds for adventurous growers, including my ultimate summer bulbs, hardy orchids.
Full disclosure: I love hardy orchids because I am unashamedly obsessed with exotic-style gardening. But unlike many other exotic-looking plants, hardy orchids look as at home in rustic cottage-style gardens and temperate woodland glades as they do planted under a subtropical canopy of exotic ferns. Given their striking beauty, amazing garden versatility and ease of culture, it’s a shame they are still so underused. This is my attempt to change that, starting with three of my favourites.
First up, the egret orchid of Japan, Habenaria radiata, whose stunning, white, frilly-edged petals resemble a bird in flight. If you give them dappled sunlight, with plenty of rich organic matter to mimic their damp woodland home, peanut-sized tubers planted now could give you blooms for years to come. I have planted mine in a large, shallow earthenware dish which can be placed on a patio table, so these intricate flowers on 30cm spikes can be appreciated up close. Despite their far-flung origin and unusual appearance, the plants are pretty hardy, down to about -5C. This means they should be fine in the ground throughout sheltered spots in southern Britain, and given a good thick layer of mulch in winter, which will double up in breaking down to enrich the soil. However, growing them in pots, like I do, means they can be transferred to a dark, cool, frost-free place once dormant in winter, should tumbling temperatures strike.
If you are looking for blizzard-proof hardiness, slipper orchids (cypripediums) are where it’s at. Cypripedium ‘Emil’, a cross between American and European species, has excellent hybrid vigour. Plants are hardy down to at least -20C and are probably the strongest-growing of all members of the genus, with delicately scented, dazzling blooms of curly, rusty red petals and a swollen “slipper” in bright sulphur yellow.
Being descended from two woodland species, these plants enjoy moist but not waterlogged conditions, in light shade. Much like egret orchids, these 30cm-high blooms will look great in pots raised up to eye level. Always pick glazed (not porous) containers with adequate drainage holes, so as not to run the risk of them drying out quickly in summer or filling with water in winter, giving plants even moisture conditions.
Finally, Calanthe ‘Takane’ is another cross between wild species, which has produced a super-charged offspring. It’s taller than the other orchids here, with flower spikes of around 50cm high. ‘Takane’ combines soft orangey reds with lime green and pale yellow in the same flower, with generous sprays on leafless plants, followed by lush, corrugated leaves like a Chinese fan.
And as well as all of these, there are plenty of other amazing hardy orchids, from Bletilla to Pleione, to discover.
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