Chinese Ground Orchids are Tough

Chinese ground orchid (Bletilla striata)

Chinese ground orchid (Bletilla striata)

Last week I wrote about orchids doing best when grown in containers, that confinement does them good.
Well, wouldn’t you know it? Just a few days after writing those words I saw a plant I had never seen before that turns out to be an orchid. It is growing in the ground in a Sherman Oaks front yard and blooming like crazy.
I suppose, in my defense, I could argue that the orchid would bloom with even greater fervor in a flower pot, but for now I must recommend it as a species for growing in just plain dirt in almost any garden bed.
It is worth keeping in mind that the orchid family is the largest family of plants. Most are tropical epiphytes, growing in the crotches of rain forest tree branches. But there are also lithophytes, which are species that grow on rocks, and terrestrials or ground-dwelling orchids. I have just learned, via Wikipedia, that there are more than 20,000 orchid species – more than twice the number of bird species and four times the number of mammal species – so there is probably some sort of orchid for every microclimate and soil type.
The earth-friendly orchid that thrives in Sherman Oaks is Chinese ground orchid (Bletilla striata). It also goes by the name of “hardy orchid” since it is considered by many to be the toughest orchid, which means it’s the easiest orchid to grow.
It is cold hardy and, in the Valley, does well in both sunny and shady exposures. It possesses pseudobulbs, or swollen bases of leaves. They serve the same carbohydrate storage function as bulbs except that pseudobulbs are above ground. Hardy orchid spreads by means of underground rhizomes. It is advertised as blooming in late spring or early summer yet, due to this year’s unusually warm winter, it is flowering now.
Its color is in the mauve to fuchsia range and it is most comfortable in partial or filtered sun exposures.
Spring star flower (Ipheion uniflora), whose six-pointed, white star flowers are infused with baby blue, is another highly recommended, no-fuss, bulbous plant that is flowering at winter’s end in Sherman Oaks. It grows in sunny to shady exposures in any type of soil.
There is mild resistance to growing this plant since it is considered to be a weed in some quarters. Yet I have no hesitation in praising it, just as I frequently praise Peruvian lily (Alstroemeria), which also grows like a weed.
Isn’t the ideal garden a place where reliably flowering species grow like weeds with a minimum of care?
Many wildflowers would classify as weeds in this respect. I have seen California poppies (Eschscholtzia californica) and native garland flowers (Clarkia unguiculata) naturalize parkway strips as well as any weed could ever do.
Michael Kappel, Westwood’s master gardener, has planted a shady portion of his backyard with an intriguing lawn substitute.
It’s mondo grass (Ophiopogon japonicus). Perhaps that’s why we call mondo grass a grass, since it can be turned into a grassy lawn, even though it belongs to the lily family.
For the uninitiated, mondo grass is typically grown as a mounding clump of a plant that, left untouched, rises up to 8 inches tall. It is closely related to lily turf (Liriope spp.), a silky leafed, purple-flowered clumping favorite which, like mondo grass, appears on everyone’s list of shade garden perennials.
However, mondo grass has a problem. In its mature state, its leaf ends turn an unsightly brown and it builds a layer of gray thatch from below. Therefore, it must be cut back and rejuvenated from time to time.
Kappel, noticing the lush look of mondo grass when it begins to regrow following a radical trim, decided to go all in with it in an area shaded by a lemon-scented gum (Eucalyptus citriodora), where he had long struggled to grow a lawn. His new lawn would be created from dirt flats of mondo grass, 81 plants to a flat, where plants would be placed 4 inches apart.
It took less than a year for the mondo grass to grow together and he now trims it to the ground with a gas-powered hedge trimmer twice a year. It does not require irrigation in the winter and, even in the hottest summer weather, he never waters it more than twice a week. Kappel feels that the longer it’s in place, the less irrigation his mondo lawn will require.
It absorbs moderate foot traffic without complaint.
Speaking of lawn alternatives, or perhaps I should say, in this case, lawn supplements or complements, English daisy (Bellis perennis) deserves mention. As I drove by De Neve Square, a pocket park on Beverly Glen Boulevard just north of Sunset Boulevard, I was startled by the sight of myriad daisies growing in the lawn. Of course I had to stop and take a closer look. What a delight!
Instead of the usual struggling lawn – and, by definition, a lawn must struggle in Los Angeles’ desert climate – here was something different. It was more like a meadow where daisies had secured a foothold. It will be interesting to see if they stay there year-round or are merely seasonal. I can only hope that they are not classified as a weed and sprayed out.
It reminds me of the reaction some people have to the presence of white or pink clover in their lawn. All clover does is increase the soil’s nitrogen content and attract honeybees, although it is typically considered a weed and instantly eradicated.
White clover requires no fertilizer and is highly drought tolerant. It can be seeded in bare spots of a conventional lawn and will have a positive effect on stretching the intervals between watering. It smells good and is not affected by dog urine. It should stay green most of the year, except for a brief winter dormancy period.
It is a sun lover, however, so do not plant white clover in a shady yard.
Tip of the week
Imagine a 6-foot shrub that blooms six months of the year in near-drought conditions. Its wiry stems, studded with white, pink or violet flowers, may be cut for mixed bouquets and vase arrangements where they keep their vitality for more than a week.
I am talking about Geraldton wax flower (Chamelaucium uncinatum), native to Western Australia. It is named after Charles Fitzgerald, at least the “Gerald” part of his last name, who was the first governor of that territory. It flowers from midwinter until late summer. Geraldton wax flower has a light and airy growth habit. Its shoots lengthen rapidly and, once the plant matures, may be cut back by one-third on an annual basis. It is easily propagated from stem cuttings in fast-draining soil or potting mix. Flowers are bowl shaped with five petals and leaves are 1 1/2-inch needles. Both flowers and needles have a lemon scent. Plant it in half to three-quarters of the day’s sun.

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