Wild about orchids: Exotic-looking and hardy, these lovely plants are perfect for brightening borders
- Nigel Colborn says 52 orchid species are native to Britain and are flowering now
- He said these colourful plants are perfect for brightening a summer border
- British gardener says his favourite is D. foliosa, which comes from Madeira
When you hear the word ‘orchid’, what comes to mind? Whatever the image, it’s probably not a border perennial. Nevertheless, hardy orchids are the prettiest plants in my garden.
Of the world’s 28,000 orchid species, 52 are native to Britain. Many lack value in a flowerbed or are unobtainable. But some of the remainder are beautiful enough to delight even a discriminating gardener.
Most are wild species, brought into cultivation. But there are hybrids too, all fully hardy and easy to grow. Then there are more challenging orchids; difficult to nurture but beautiful.
Meadow flowers: Nigel Colborn says 52 orchid species are native to Britain and are flowering now He said these colourful plants are perfect for brightening a summer border. Pictured: The most widespread spotted orchid Dactylorhiza fuchsii
Most of our prettiest native orchids are flowering now. You can find out where they grow from wildlifetrusts.org and plantlife.org.uk.
Our most widespread is the spotted orchid Dactylorhiza fuchsii. Usually found in meadows, it has lilac flower spikes and stippled leaves. But in a fertile border that orchid is transformed; the stems grow taller and the flowers more colourful.
Pretty though they are, common spotted orchids have more spectacular relatives. Native southern marsh orchids, D. praetermissa, can grow 75cm high. European robust marsh orchids, D. elata, are even bigger.
But the prettiest, D. foliosa, comes from Madeira. Dense clumps of spotted leaves appear in spring, soon producing fat summer spikes of vivid rose-purple flowers. In good soil and full light, those can grow 50cm tall. The spotty leaves stay beautiful long after flowering.
Like common spotted orchids, you could naturalise D. foliosa in a meadow. But to me, it looks too exotic for that. I prefer it in a summer border where it becomes a long-lasting plant.
Orchids often grow better when close to their relatives. Years ago, I planted D. foliosa behind some American stream orchids, Epipactis gigantea. Despite the name, those are only 30cm high, with distinctive flowers in a blend of rusty pink, pale tan and gold-green.
Native to Britain marsh helleborine, Epipactis palustris is a close relative and makes another fitting companion. That has flowers with green, pink and white petals. Just a few specialist nurseries sell it, so you may have to wait for available plants. Try bethchatto.co.uk.
Divide and Prosper
Almost all hardy orchids are long-lived perennials. Some, such as the helleborines, have a creeping rootstock. But most develop into generous clumps over several years. To preserve their vigour, those should be dug up, gently teased apart and small divisions re-planted.
I’ve tried this in spring and autumn. But those lifted in spring establish more rapidly.
With most perennials, you can rip mature plants apart. But orchids have soft foliage and tender roots, so they need gentle handling. You may, on a lifted plant, discover small, oval tubers among the root mass. Those are easily bruised or damaged, so handle carefully. Tease large clumps into smaller divisions. Plant those immediately.
Orchids depend on mycorrhiza — soil-born fungi which help the roots to absorb nutrients. Lots of fertiliser can damage those, so plant your orchids without using artificial plant food.
If you want to naturalise orchids in a meadow or in your lawn, that’s not difficult. We’ll cover flower meadows in September, so watch this space.