A Year with the Hardies, Steve Clements

Steve is a member of the Lincolnshire Orchid Group, and was responsible for their wonderful display at Chatsworth which consisted entirely of hardies. He started his orchid growing career with hardies, mainly by accident, and also now includes a few cool growing tropicals such as Restrepias. The first plant was Dact. fuschii – a common native plant. This was spotted at a plant fair, and looked like worth growing, so was purchased. A few more followed from rare plant fairs, along with some Serapias (the tongue orchid), and the rest is of course now history.

It is necessary to define just what ‘hardy’ means, both to the general UK, and the local environment. There are a wide range of temperatures in the UK, and you need to carefully check out the claims of plants purchased from eg. Nurseries in Cornwall compared to Scotland. Generally hardy can mean that a plant can survive a harsh winter, but might die in exceptional conditions. Survival is a harsh reality, but thriving is more of the key, and thankfully the UK natives will thrive, as will orchids from northern Europe. Many hardy orchids from southern Europe will not survive outdoors in UK conditions, and this is mainly due to our cold wet winters. Steve has decided to take no chances with the weather, and keeps all his hardies under cover over the winter to avoid water logging. This is in a range of shelters. An 8×6 greenhouse is used for the less hardy plants where some heat can be used on the coldest of nights. It is only used in winter. A smaller 6×4 greenhouse is used for the Pleiones, and an even smaller 4×2 alongside the house is used for the Cyps. During the winter the rest of the garden becomes covered with cold frames to accommodate the ever increasing collection. As the bulk of the plants are dormant over winter they can be stacked on shallow shelves to utilise most of the available space. It is only when growth starts that the extra frames become necessary. Well grown hardies should bulk up reasonably quickly, so surplus plants tend to be distributed around his local society.

The great benefit of growing hardies (apart from the obvious ones above) is that they are quite different in cultivation than trying to spot them in the wild. As they go dormant, and are re-potted there is an element of planting them, nurturing them, and then watching them flower – unlike eg. Phalaenopsis that don’t alter from one month to the next…

There are 3 main types of hardy orchids. These are ‘summer green, winter dormant’, ‘winter green summer dormant’, and ‘evergreen’. Summer green, winter dormant – as the name suggests these plants grow during the spring & summer, dying back in autumn. These include a wide range of genera including Dactylorhiza, Bletilla, Cypripedium, & Epipactis. None of these are ever totally dormant as they do develop the new shoots over Autumn and winter. Most of these will bulk up well given good growing conditions, especially those with hybrid vigour. Many of the Dactylorhizas interbreed easily, and most plants sold as the species may not be true to type – especially true of eg. Dact. Foliosa. Many Cyps are now becoming freely available through mail order with production now on a massive scale in the Netherlands. Unfortunately they are inclined to use trade names rather than the species or registered hybrid names eg. ‘Kentucky’ rather than kentuckyense, and ‘Kentucky Pink Blush’ rather than C. Lucy Pinkepanke’ (some are obvious, others aren’t!). It is important to avoid offers from non specialist retailers such as Thomson & Morgan (and even the RHS) as these are most likely straight from the flask and need greater care. Bletillas (and Pleiones) are available from Garden Centres, and these should also be avoided as they are likely to have dried out too much prior to reaching the shelves.

Winter green, summer dormant – shouldn’t be taken as the opposite of the first category. Many terrestrials from Australia have developed to be dormant during summer as it is too hot, so they tend to grow during the cooler period and flower at the earliest opportunity. These include Ophrys and Orchis. Ophrys apifera is a terrific flower, but the plant is a difficult grower. It flowers later in spring, and a really hot spring can cause it to disappear for a few years or even kill it if it has been unable to develop a new tuber. All of this group need to develop new tubers to sustain the next year’s growth. Death is inevitable for those that don’t. Most grow from small tubers, and these can be bought mail order as ‘bare rooted’ plants quite cheaply – although you may not get what you expected! Orchis is a strange genus with many having a 5 pointed lip resembling a primate.

Evergreen may not be a true term for native orchids, but there are several non- native species that will thrive. The term evergreen is used rather than the others as they don’t die back annually, but maintain the previous year’s growths for energy storage. This group includes some Calanthes and some Cymbidiums. Calanthe striata is from Japan, but will grow well in the UK, and needs to be kept moist over winter. Cym goeringii comes from China (where it is a cult plant) and Japan, and is small for the genus, often growing on grassy slopes where it produces a few small flowers on a short spike.

For Steve, the hardies year starts in August. Most plants are dormant or just about starting to grow, although Serapias lingua will flower. Some re-potting will take place, but careful observation of some plants is necessary as Ophrys can suffer from neck rot. Compost is based on John Innes no. 2 with extra perlite. Feeding is with a weak solution of either Tomorite or Miraclegrow used in rainwater.  In September Pterostylis coccinea is in flower, and more repotting goes on. In October Spiranthes spiralis is in flower. Start to bring some plants indoors. November is a troublesome month as it is a battle for light with the green plants versus protection in the darker bubble wrapped greenhouse. December is a poor month with frost and cold. Some fleece is used for extra protection in the corners of non-airtight greenhouses. Some daily air movement is useful to penetrate the compost. Check for bugs and slugs, and it is worth noting that hardies don’t react very well to Provado. January is still a dark winter month, but signs of life are around as Barlia (Himantoglossum) robertianum (the manikin orchid) starts to flower. February is a bit brighter, and the earliest of the Ophrys start to flower – including fusca and lupercalis. If it is possible to get an Ophrys overload, then March is the time, with lutea, bombyliflora, speculum and tenthredinifera all at their best. The earliest of the Dactylorhizas start to flower with sambucina which has red or yellow forms. In April a large range of plants will be growing strongly, and a variety will be in flower including Cyp. macranthos, Calanthe brevicornu and Ophrys insectifera. Self seeded Dactylorhizas are likely to start appearing in the garden and all of the pots. Are they a nuisance – or just an endless supply of free plants? May sees everything out of the greenhouses and frames, and a riot of colour. This is a time for several of the later antipodean orchids to flower such as Diuris behrii (a yellow donkey eared flower) and Thelymitre nuda (a rare blue flowered orchid). Lots more Cyps, as well as Anacamptis morio, laxiflora and elegans can be seen. The first of the Serapias will start to bloom now. June sees the wintergreen plants going dormant, with many of the others not rampant. This is the main period for Dactylorhizas with plants up to 1m tall. The Cyps are now starting to reach the end of their season, with reginae usually the last to flower. The hybrid Bletillas will be in full bloom, and strangely, so too will the hybrid Pterostylis Dusky Duke. July is the ‘end of the year’ for Steve with few plants in flower. The long lasting Bletilla hybrids will still be going strong, and an interesting small orchid – Ponerorchis graminifolia will be in flower. These grow from a tuber the size of a pea, and are quite colourful. Steve likes to re-pot the plants every year apart from the Cyps and Calanthes which prefer to be undisturbed for at least 2 years. With such a variety of plants and colour throughout the year – why not grow them????? 10 years ago there were few hardies around, and now they are almost freely available, and are relatively cheap.