Plant Encyclopedia

The “only” easy to grow terrestrial orchid – Bletilla striata


Here’s a terrestrial orchid that is not only common, but can also take a fair amount of abuse and live to tell the tale.  The bulbous rhizomes can be packaged for some months, completely rootless, and yet when planted they will grow on and even flower.  Ironically, while this species is so easy to grow and is available at big box stores the world over, it also is very rare in the wild these days.

 

Bletilla striata is a perennial, deciduous orchid of open environments.  The grass-like leaves, numbering between 4-8, grow tightly along a central, thick stem to the height of 30-50 cm on average.  The leaves are bright green and deeply ribbed, giving the overall impression of an unflowering plant as that of a typical palm tree seedling.

Bletilla striata clump

Bletilla striata can form clumps of a hundred or more stems.

 

The flower stalk arises out of the top of the leaves at the apex of the main stem and can extend for another 30 cm or more.  The typically pink-purple flowers occur in an alternating pattern along its length and open sequentually, yet several are in flower at any given time.  The flower stalks start out in a vertical position, but as more flowers open, they tend to sag down and become horizontal to the ground.

 

 

Bletilla striata, mixed forms

The author's garden showing various color forms of Bletilla striata growing in one patch.

The flowers, which can number up to 10 or more per stalk, have a very classical orchid shape, something like a Cattleya, and are about 6 cm across.  The sepals and petals are solid pink-purple and are of similar shape and size.  The partially tubular lip is deeply ribbed with a ruffles at the end, and these are often streaked white.  The column is long and descending, becoming broader at its tip.  Plants quickly clump and individuals can number a hundred stems or more in time.

In Japan this species typically flowers from April through May.  Preferring bright environments, it can be found on forest edges, low mountain meadows, rocky cliff faces, marshlands, and along rivers in exposed, sunny environments. River “improvements”, and damn building has lead to the species becoming very rare in nature.

When I first came to Japan I imagined that this would be one of the first orchids I would find in the wild, but after more than 8 years of looking, I have yet to see one wild specimen.  It is a very common garden plant, often growing into large patches in time. It can also be seen grown in any manner of containers along street sides and is equally happy in rural or urban environments.  I have seen one growing in a bonsai pot that has virtually no soil anymore – the plant’s bulbous rhizomes piled on top of each other like rocks, veritably overflowing the pot.  Plastic containers housing huge clumps split over time from the plants over filling them and yet they just march on.

Various colored flowers have been selected while others have variegated foliage, the so-called “albostriata” varieties.  Here’s a sampling of some on the world market today.

 

Bletilla striata, normal flower

The normal colored flower of Bletilla striata is known the world over.

 

The typical flower color tends to be consistent in most plants, a pink-purple, but darker varieties exist.  Some flowers open widely, while others remain more cupped.  There also exists a nearly white flower that retain a bit of pink in the lip or more commonly just the column area.  It is no more difficult to grow than the typical variety.  True albas also exist, but don’t look much different.  A slightly more rare pale flowered form exists, known as variety rosea.

 

B. striata c.v. 'Murasaki Shikibu'

Bletilla striata c.v. 'Murasaki Shikibu' is said to come true from seed.

 

There are two commonly available blue forms of B. striata.  The first is ‘Mursaki Shikibu’, a cultivar named after the famous ancient Japanese novelist.  This plant has the “blue” cast found in other orchids such as “blue Cattleyas“, that is to say, the flower is more a lavandar color.  This form was first collected in Oita Prefecture on the island of Kyushu.  Today it is being mass produced and recently has made it onto the world market.  The flower segments are a bit “fatter” than a typical flower and the flowers tend to remain more cupped.  It is said that plants come true from seed.

Bletilla striata 'Soryu'

Bletilla striata 'Soryu' has a unique shape and color.

 

The second blue form is ‘Soryu’.  This plant was purported to have been collected in Wakayama Prefecture on the island of Honshu.  It too now is being mass produced.  There is some discussion that this cultivar might actually be a hybrid with the Taiwanese B. formosana rather than being a pure form of the species.  It is difficult to know if folks are lying about its true origin, so this one remains a bit of a mystery.  The plant tends to be a bit more dwarf growing than other varieties, and the flower’s shape is a bit off from a normal B. striata flower – again, a bit gracile looking.

 

Here’s a video showing all the varieties covered in this article in my garden in southern Japan.

 

 

Bletilla striata 'Fukurin'

This new cultivar shows marginal variegation in flower parts, not the leaves.

 

 

A relatively new cultivar has marginal variegation not on its leaves, but the flower itself has a white margin on all flower segments.  In all other respects the plant is identical to a typical B. striata.  it is still scarce in cultivation even in Japan.

 

 

Bletilla striata 'Trilips'

The oddball of the bunch, B. striata c.v. 'Trilips'.

 

 

 

Perhaps the most unique form is the fascinating peloric flower form, ‘Trilips’.  Besides boasting three lips, this one is notable for other reasons:  the flower is quite small, perhaps half the size of a normal one, the flower color is a very deep, saturated purple/pink (more than in the photo), and the flowers produce no pollen.  Once quite rare and so very expensive, they now are being mass produced and likely are finding their way onto the world market.  Ten years ago this one would sell for $100 per plant, and now retails at 1/4 that price today.

 

 

Bletilla striata 'Rosea'

Bletilla striata c.v. 'Rosea'. a lovely pale pink form.

Often called the “hardy Chinese ground orchid” in the bulb trade, this species is by far the easiest terrestrial orchid to grow.  If planted in any reasonable compost that doesn’t sour, it will grow and if given adequate sunshine it will also flower.  The best conditions to grow this plant is in the ground in a nice rich loam that is constantly moist in full sun.  It however is just as happy in a pot so long as it is well watered and gets good light.  Too shady conditions will make plants spindly and flower much less.  Fertilize as you would any garden plant or vegetable.  While in growth these are heavy feeders.  Hardy to USDA cold hardiness zone 5 with heavy mulch in winter, but happiest in warmer climates.

Some people have even grown them in bog gardens, so the plant is quite adaptable.  It is tricky to grow indoors however.  If you live in a cold climate, I recommend growing them outside in summer and bringing them into a cold, frost free place for the winter. An unheated garage or the like is a good choice.  These plants prefer a longer growing season, ideally from April through October, but a bit shorter won’t hurt them.

One more interesting thing about this plant is that you can grow it from seed without aseptic growing conditions.  All that is needed is compost that has aged outside – a potful of loam from a deceased plant is perfect to try and grow some Bletilla seed.  All you need to do is sow the fine seed directly onto the soil and keep it moist. Once conditions are favorable, you may be rewarded with seedling plants.

Given their ease of cultivation, some of the more rare forms will become more common in time.  This is a hard plant to beat if you want to succeed with a terrestrial orchid.

 

Bletilla comparison shot

Four B. striata forms. From the top left going clockwise: 'semi alba', 'normal', 'Murasaki Shikibu', and 'Soryu'.

 

15 Responses to “The “only” easy to grow terrestrial orchid – Bletilla striata”

  1. Hi Tom

    I just have had e good look around here and it looks great. I knew you where thinking about and working on this project for some years now but teh result is great.
    A good source of information on Japanese plants for us westerners!

    Thanks for doing this!!

    • tommy says:

      Hey Rogier, glad you like it so far. So, how are your Bletilla doing? The last time you sent me photos your ‘Murasaki Shikibu’ looked great. It must be huge by now.

  2. christina Stockinger says:

    Hallo,

    I am crazy about the Bletillas and I’d like to plant a lot of them in my garden. But I don’t know, where to recieve it no Brazil. Can you help me? Do you know where I can get it, or where I can order it in the internet?

    Thank’s a lot in advance for answering me.

    • tommy says:

      Hey Christina,

      Sorry, I don’t know of anyone growing Bletilla in Brazil. Since this species grows from a thickened rhizome that is nearly bulbous, it can be stored dry and without roots while dormant. Plants don’t like that treatment, but they can endure it and within a couple seasons of planting even thrive. These are tough plants.

      I would recommend checking out large bulb companies in Europe that are willing to send overseas since many of these stock Bletilla bulbs. Since these are orchids, a CITES document will have to be sent along with them however. That can be pricey.

      Beyond that, I wonder how well they would do for you in your tropical climate. This species requires at a partial cool off in winter for a couple months. They grow fine in north Florida, but Brazil…I’m not sure.

      Central and South America are home to some fantastic terrestrials! The genus Bletia has members that rival or exceed Bletilla in beauty and they should do very well in your climate. Also check out some of the Cyrtopodium species from Brazil’s grasslands – WOW!

  3. Carol Krena says:

    I have about 100 or more bulbs that I dug up in my Western PA garden. I would like to plant them in my garden on Siesta Key in FL. Should I ship them now to FL to be planted or can I take them with me at Christmas and plant them in early Jan. Should I cut the roots back now? I’ve been dividing and giving away these Bletillas for years, love this plant.

    • tommy says:

      Carol,

      I would wait until Christmas since sending them now would only confuse them – like summer is starting all over again. The truth is that they will probably begin growing right away in Florida since it will too warm to keep them dormant. I grew this species in Gainesville, Florida and had problems keeping them dormant in February due to warm days – they would always begin growth and then we’d have a frost and they’d get damaged. Siesta Key is even more mild, so i can’t say when they’d grow there, but it probably will be very early. Do you have any growing outside there yet?

      As for cutting roots, I never cut them on this species since they do not naturally lose their roots on an annual basis.

      Tom

  4. Fred Crowe says:

    Hey dude,
    I have a botanical friend who claims thatthere is a native Bletilla in Central America. Have you heard of that? I have serious doubts.
    Old bionic Fred

    • tommy says:

      Hi Fred. I think your friend is mixing up Bletilla with the Central and South American genus Bletia. Both genera are terrestrial, have erect racemes of (normally) purple to pink flowers, and grass-like leaves. One species of Bletia is even found naturally in Florida, B. purpurea. None in that genus are cold hardy, being found only in subtropical to tropical forests and grasslands.

  5. Elize says:

    Hi – I have just recently bought a Bletilla Strata-alba, it was the only specimen available and it looks rather neglected but after viewing the video I am sure this beautiful ground orchid will recover. We are now in the start of our Autumn season so it will become dormant shortly. Thank you for the information given I am sure with care this plant will recover to its full show stopper beauty that it is. Oh, I am writing from South Africa!

  6. Sharon Papadopoulos says:

    Where can I get Bletilla striata or other naturalizing ground orchids that will grow in Houston ,Texas?

  7. Gerna says:

    I just bought the Bletilla Siriata yesterday and want to know if I must plant it in the sun or shade? I am from South- Africa.

    • tommy says:

      In a humid environment, I recommend full sun for this species. If the relative humidity falls below 50% most of the time I recommend a bit more shade, but not full shade or the plants will not flower. This species grows in moist to wet soils in full sun in the wild. Good luck with your plants Gerna!

  8. Miga Hasso says:

    Hi Tom,

    I found your article on Bletilla very interesting and I would like to grow some myself. I live in southeast England. Would you know anyone that might be able to supply me with some. Thank you in advance.

    regards,

    Miga

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