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~ Growing Hardy Orchids in Your Canadian Garden ~

There are two ways to think about orchids. The first, is that that they are delicate, fussy, fragile plants; the second, is that they can be counted amongst the toughest plants on the planet, thriving in some the most inhospitable environment.

Which is true?

I'll never forget finding an extremely large stand of the fluorescent pink orchid, Calopogon tuberosus, or Grass Pink, while exploring a lonely beach on Quebec's Magdalen Islands. It was so large, I couldn't see where it began or ended. The short-statured plants were growing everywhere in a mat of frail-looking sedges, and Drosera, the sundew carnivorous plant. To my right was dry, barren sand, and the sea, and at some distance to my left, an acid bog. The presence of carnivorous plants is diagnostic of a nitrogen-poor environment; they have evolved mechanisms to trap nitrogen-rich insects, allowing them to grow in places where no other plant would survive... but what about the Calopogon?

All orchids grow with the benefit of fungus, whose power they harness with an invitation to grow sheltered within their roots. The fungus are water and nutrient extraction little machines, allowing the Calopogon to make use the the traces of nitrogen in the acidic water from the bog seeping through the sand. What a tough little cookie!

Yet, it's plain to see why attempting to grow Calopogon tuberosus in garden soil would be futile. This highly specialzed environment would be extremely difficult to reproduce. Even if this could be done, a similar amount of effort would have to be expanded to grow a second orchid species, such as Cypripedium calceolus (the Yellow Lady's Slipper), an orchid fond of limy soils and cool breezes.

On the other hand, I've seen the European invader Epipactis helleborine growing in fields with grasses, in a forest alone in the shade, and, uninvited, six individuals in a particularly wet spot in my garden!

With the sudden influx of in-vitro propagated hardy terrestrial orchids in the market, it's now becoming less expensive to experiment, for gardeners looking for a challenge, a chance of some big rewards.

Read on below for some tips on growing some orchid species you are likely to encounter in the specialist nursery trade.


Cypripedium are not easily grown in standard garden conditions are require much tender loving care.
Cypripedium reginae and Cypripedium calceolus occur naturally in cool, temperate forest, and the key to success is to reproduce their environment. The plants absolutely require cool roots; hot soil is deadly. In the wild, they grow in clearings that benefit from the refreshing breeze from deeply shaded woods nearby or the vicinity of fresh water.
Full sun is acceptable in the cool hours of the morning, but quite dangerous at noon, and later during the day when the air has warmed.
Soil and Watering
Cypripedium reginae and Cypripedium calceolus like moist, but not wet, growing conditions. A well aerated leavy compost, with the addition of sphagnum moss (much preferred to peat moss) for the former, and lime or crushed oyster shells for the latter is highly desirable. The soil can be further supplemented by a small quantity of evergreen needles and sand.

Epipactis helleborine

This orchid was introduced from Europe, and has spread throughout much of Eastern North America. Grows in fields and forests, and is very tolerant of soil conditions. The inconspicous greenish flowers are held on a spike reaching 0.5 m. Might even self-sow in your garden. The leaves emerge quite late in the spring, so marking the area where they have been planted might be useful to prevent accidental removal.
Cold and heat tolerant.
Prefers full-sun or light shade.
Soil and Watering
Requires humid to wet conditions during the active growth period, but very tolerant of the variety of soil types found in gardens.


Ophrys are European natives that look like big fuzzy bugs. In fact, they look so much like bugs that they are routinely pollinated by male insects that are completely fooled!
DO check for hardiness before your purchase, many species are not hardy beyond zone 6.
Ophrys like full sun or semi-shade.
Soil and Watering
Evenly moist conditions and good drainage are preferred, some species require a period of dry dormancy during the summer heat. Some species require lime or oyster shells.


Principally grown for its foliage, this genera produce spikes of small white flowers. Interestingly, the leaves remain fresh and alive even under the cover of snow, they do not spoil - I guess you can say they are evergreen.
Goodyera repens is very hardy in Canada, growing up to the Yukon, and prefers cool summers, while Goodyera pubescens (a species that grows in clumps, and is therefore showier) is native to zone 6, though it may be hardier.
Goodyera like shade or semi-shade.
Soil and Watering
Evenly moist conditions and good drainage are preferred, in rich or acidic humus from maple and birch leaves.

Hardy Orchid Links

Orchid Society of the Royal Botanical Gardens - Botanical and ecological information on a great number of native terrestrial orchids.
Planteck Biotechnologies - In vitro propagated Cypripedium, Bletilla, Calopogon, Dactylorhiza, Platanthera and others. In English and French
Ya Li's Orchids - Exotic, cold-hardy Lady's Slippers.
The Cypripedium Garden - Suppliers of nursery-grown winter hardy lady's slipper orchids.
H.E.R lady's Slippers - Saskatchewan growers sells two species of yellow lady's slippers.
Orchidées MFC - Quebec growers offers a selection of Plananthera and Cypripedium, Ophrys, Spiranthes and Calypso. In English and French.
Thimble Farms - West coast growers offers a selection of hardy orchids that include horticultural hybrids.
Horticlub - Platanthera and Cypripedium. In French.

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