Orchids are a group of plants that has almost escaped my hortimaniacal tendencies. Not that I donít admire them greatly, because I do. Itís just that I feel they need special treatment and care that I am unable to provide.
Growers dispute this claim and say they are the easiest of all plants to grow. Usually when I visit orchid enthusiasts, they take me to special greenhouses that house their collection. There they proudly show me row after row of orchids in various stages of development. I go through these places with my eyes agog. I know how children feel when they’re in a toy shop and can look at but not touch any of the wonderful playthings. So far I have successfully disciplined myself and hardened my heart. I remain almost orchidless.
However, one orchid has struck my fancy, and I have found that I can grow it with great success. A friend gave me a potted nun’s orchid (Phaius tankervilliae), and I set it in the bright light of Florida room with my other potted treasures. There it received no special care, though it was, like my other plants, watered regularly and treated to a dilute solution of water-soluble fertilizer monthly during the growing season. Imagine my delight when it bloomed on schedule and produced its beautiful flowers right in my Florida room.
My nun’s orchid is a vigorous plant with glossy, lance shaped leaves to three feet in length. The leaves remind me of aspidistra leaves in size and shape, but they are thinner, pleated, and of less substance. Their attractiveness is a change-about, as most orchids I’ve seen were grown primarily for their flowers, and unattractive foliage generally ignored. This one, however, holds its own with other foliage plants in the Florida room even when not in bloom.
When it blooms, it is spectacular. Tall flower spikes up to four or more feet tall appear in late winter or early spring. Four inch flowers open sequentially on the stalk for four to six weeks. Each flower has petals that are reddish brown on the front side and white to silvery on back. The lower lip is rose or lavender to purple with a darker throat. Some hybrids are available in other colors, including orange and gold. Fragrance of the blossoms adds another dimension of pleasure.
Repotting should take place immediately after flowering every two or three years or when the pots become crowded. Divide when there are enough of the egg-shaped pseudobulbs to have three or four per division. Replant in a freely draining but moist, humus-rich, acid potting medium in a deep flower pot with plenty of space for root growth. Another method of propagation is to cut spent flower stalks into six-inch pieces, each with at least two jointlike nodes. Place the stalks horizontally in moist sand, and they will usually strike roots and send up little plants at each node. Pot these starts as soon as roots are well established.
Nun’s orchid is a terrestrial orchid that is hardy from Zones 9-11. Those of us who experience frosts and freezing weather can grow them successfully in containers if they are brought in during the winter. Inside place them in bright light but not direct sun. Outside, place them in a shady area.
The only trouble I’ve had with my nun’s orchid is an occasional infestation of scale insects. If I see only a few (evidenced by small brown bumps on the stems and leaves accompanied by sticky honeydew), I swab them with a Q-tip moistened with rubbing alcohol. Spraying the leaf surfaces with horticultural oil will smother the insects. Badly infested leaves should be cut off and discarded.
The large leaves are quite thin, which can cause them to break or bend easily. Pine needles and leaves or sticks falling from a tree can damage the foliage. Avoid placing these plants where such damage can take place, or where a hose might be carelessly dragged over them or an exuberant dog might run through them. You could end up with some of the leaves broken and hanging limply on the ground or drooping over the sides of the container. As careful as I am with mine, I occasionally have to groom the plants to remove broken leaves.
Look in garden centers for this dependable orchid. When it’s in bloom you can’t miss it. It has become one of my favorite winter Florida room residents, both in and out of bloom.
THANKS TO BARRYSHIBISCUS AND ONALEE FOR THEIR PHOTOGRAPHS. MOUSE OVER PHOTOS FOR CREDITS.
About Marie Harrison
Serving as a board member for Valparaiso Garden Club, the Florida Federation of Garden Clubs and the Deep South Region, and National Garden Clubs takes a chunk of my time and attention. Being a Master Flower Show Judge, a Floral Design Instructor, instructor of horticulture for National Garden Clubs, and a University of Florida Master Gardener crowds a bit more into my busy days. In addition to these activities, I contribute regularly to Florida Gardening magazine and other publications. I am author of four gardening books, all published by Pineapple Press, Sarasota, Florida. Read about them and visit me at www.mariesgardenanddesign.com.