Plant of the Week: Bletilla striata (Hardy Chinese Ground Orchid)

By Chuck Gleaves

Bletilla striata (Chinese Ground Orchid) at Kingwood on May 27th

Bletilla striata (Chinese Ground Orchid) at Kingwood on May 27th

Chinese Ground Orchid at Kingwood on June 1st

Chinese Ground Orchid at Kingwood on June 1st

While working as a gardener at the Indianapolis Museum of Art I developed an enthusiasm for repeatedly visiting a few favorite works of art in the galleries. It evoked a strange sense of satisfaction vaguely like (but also very different from) the satisfaction garnered from making everything tidy again. It’s that “everything is in its place” sensation. Those works of art were personal icons.

Well placed, persistent, and beautiful plants in the garden can evoke similar regular visits and sense of satisfaction. Kingwood has several plants that cause those feelings in me, but the one I will discuss today is Bletilla striata or Chinese ground orchid. There is a large patch of it just a few feet south-east of the Draffan Fountain at the north end of the “allee”.  The patch has been there for all of my twenty-year tenure at Kingwood and has probably been growing there considerably longer than that.

Bletilla is a curious garden plant. The fact that it is an orchid gives it a special cache and being a hardy ground orchid makes it even more unique. I read that it is “easy” and “common”, but I suspect they are comparing it to other garden orchids such as Cypripedium (Lady’s slippers), which are very expensive and short lived in most gardens.  In all my many decades of photographing plants, I have pictures of Bletilla from only four locations. I have killed it at least twice that I recall in my gardening practice and don’t have it currently in my home garden. Bletilla seems to thrive best in rich organic soil that stays relatively moist but not soggy. It likes bright shade. Morning sun and afternoon shade is a good combination. Some references say it is only hardy to zone 6, but the longevity of Kingwood’s planting demonstrates that when grown in its “sweet spot” it is perfectly hardy in zone 5 if ensconced in a sheltered location.

Unfortunately, our multi-decade long planting of Bletilla will probably be moved in a year or two with the re-organization of the gardens around the new visitor center and the new Draffan Fountain. As finicky as this orchid tends to be, I worry that we will never find such a perfect new home for it as we have now. It will be a worthy challenge to Kingwood’s gardening prowess to both appreciate its value and re-establish it in another perfect spot.

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