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July 2012

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Hardy Orchids

Rachel Darlington fell under the spell of the orchid.

I have always been a sucker for orchids. I love the big and blousy cattleya, the thin and pouched paphiopedilum and the impossibly perfect phalaenopsis. So when I discovered hardy orchids, it will come as no surprise that they became an object of desire.

Cypripedium is a slipper orchid with all the charm and exoticism of its larger tropical cousins, but in miniature. Hailing from temperate climes, these orchids are hardy in Ireland but very fussy about their requirements. Gardening friends have asked me if they too could grow hardy orchids and my reply is always the same: "Yes, but you have to really want to!"

My first attempt at growing the hardy slipper orchid was in 2010 when I bought two different bare-root plants through eBay. While research is still on-going as to whether cypripedium require specialised mycorrhizal fungus for growth, or only for germination, it's best to keep any soil that comes with bare-root plants close to the root.

My first failure was with Cypripedium japonicum, one of the eBay ones. As drainage is key, I potted it in carefully-washed orchid bark, grit and perlite. The base was polystyrene chunks and the top dressing was more grit. Ingredients need washing to avoid dust build-up blocking drainage holes. I kept the orchid in a shady spot in the cold greenhouse but, sadly, it never emerged and investigation eventually showed that the root had rotted.

I had more luck with the second plant, Cypripedium reginae. I bought the first one because I loved the look of it but sense made me buy the second as Cypripedium reginae is recognised as one of the ‘easier' cypripedium. I fared slightly better. It grew leaves for me but produced no flowers.

In autumn 2011 Johnstown Garden Centre began to stock cypripediums. How could anyone resist one of these orchids, already potted and with a nose poking above the soil surface? I was quick to snap up ‘Aki Pastel' and bring it home. Unfortunately, despite tantalising, soft, corrugated leaves, the plant produced no flower for me either.

But I have always been a firm believer in fourth-time-lucky. I bought another bare-root plant, this time opting for the ‘easiest' hybrid that my research coughed up. I also invested in a root with two ‘noses'. The ‘noses' are the growing points from which a stem will emerge so each nose is potentially a flower and the cost reflects this. I couldn't believe my luck when the root arrived with a whopping four noses. I potted it up and waited patiently.

Cypripidium ‘Ella Silkens' produced three shoots from its four noses. And in May 2012, it also produced one perfect flower, white with pink spots at the base of the voluptuously rounded pouch. Certainly worth the wait!

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