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.
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.
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 16 years of looking, I had yet not seen one wild specimen. That finally changed in 2019 when I finally beheld a lovely population growing on a limestone plateau in northern Kyushu, Hiraodai Karst Plateau. Here the plants numbered into the hundreds, growing in and among the protruding limestone formations. While it was heartening to see a large, healthy population such as this one, it does not change that fact that this species in Japan is at best in danger of becoming endangered in the near future, or is already endangered. This situation is unfortunately true for many orchid species in Japan today.
Thankfully, 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. 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.
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 lavender 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.