Bletilla is a temperate, terrestrial genus of orchids containing 9 species distributed through China, Japan and Taiwan and Vietnam. The name is actually a diminutive of Bletia because of the resemblance between the two genera even though Bletia is a New World genus. The genera Jimensia Raf. and Polytoma Lour. ex Gomes are generally included into Bletilla. This genus is abbreviated Ble in trade journals.
The pseudobulbs resemble spreading corms which usually sit at ground level. Each pseudobulb generally bears several pleated leaves around 40cm long. The racemes of flowers emerge from the center of the years new growth before it is mature, during spring and early summer. The flowers vary in color from white to purple, and all species have four pollinia.
The tubers resemble a horn or claw. They are grayish-white or
yellowish-white in appearance, with concentric rings and brown rootlets.
They have a hard texture and do not break easily.
though some need protection from severe frost. It is better to keep
them in pots of well drained media so that water does not sit around the
during winter when the plants are not actively growing. They should also
be watered sparingly at the start of the growing season as the new
shoots emerge, as new roots often do not follow for around four weeks
Bletilla striata is the most common form found in the nursery
trade and is often labeled simply as 'Hardy Orchid' or 'Chinese Ground
Orchid' and is quite inexpensive. This beautiful and hardy deciduous
orchid has the distinction of being one of the first orchids in
cultivation in England dating from around 1794. The very flat knob-like
tuberous root system is typically sympodial, expansive and each shoot is
of annual duration only. On established plants, almost every new growth
shoot has a flower spike before leaves fully develop. Each shoot can
have up to fourteen beautiful rose-mauve flowers with a ruffled lip
about 30mm diameter, scentless and looking something like a miniature
Cattleya orchid flower. An established clump can have literally dozens
of flower spikes flowering in the late Spring and the clumps only
increase in beauty with time. They rarely exceed two feet in height.
The flowers and leaves are at the mercy of late frosts, which are to
be avoided if at all possible with coverings of a sheet or newspapers.
Resist the temptation to remove the mulch layer even if the new growths
are raising up the mulch due to an early Spring, unless no more frosts
are likely. Unlike most tropical orchids, B. striata has attractive
foliage even when not flowering. The pleated, tapered foliage looks very
similar to the juvenile leaves of many palm species. A well established
clump of these in flower is quite beautiful and they are surprisingly
hardy even into USDA Zone 5 with a heavy mulch. They easily succeed in
USDA Zone 6 with only a moderate mulch of straw or leaves. These
hardiness ratings only apply to plants in the ground with the idea of
preventing the actual root system from being frozen. If potted, they
should be placed in a frost-free location if winter temperatures go
below freezing. The plant is generally considered hardy without a mulch
if minimum winter temperatures do not go below 25°F.
They have a great reputation of being the absolute easiest orchid for
a beginner to grow. Unlike most tropical epiphytic orchids, this plant
comes from somewhat temperate zones and grows in soil rather than on
trees and require no extraordinary care to grow successfully. They
prefer well drained evenly moist soils that are high in organic material
and that never dry out nor remain sodden. They are sympodial growers
and will form handsome clumps in only a few years. Other species and
hybrids are occasionally available, the most common being B. striata var. alba, a white variation of the rose-mauve B. striata. Bletilla ochracea,
a somewhat rare species from China has unusual flowers with yellow
sepals and petals with a red-marked white lip and is becoming more
available to collectors. Bletilla Penway Dragon (formosana × szetschuaunica) appears to be one of the exciting new hybrid grex if it becomes more available.