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Nun's Orchid is a fitting herald of spring

The holiday we call Easter is a blend of ancient pagan and Christian traditions, its rich symbols celebrating fertility (fecund rabbits and plentiful eggs), renewal and rebirth (the resurrection, white lilies) and religious faith. Luckily for Florida gardeners, one formerly rare, easy-to-grow perennial flower captures all those essences in its name and its dramatic spring emergence: the Nun's Orchid.

Many see a serene, hooded nun in the flower. Each blossom, 4 inches in diameter, is a rich blend of white, purple and burgundy-brown. It is also known by the nickname "chocolate orchid" because of the rich brown coloration on portions of the petals. A heady, sweet perfume virtually drips from newly opened flowers borne atop statuesque 3-foot flower spikes. The foliage is evocative of another traditional Easter plant, the palm.

Nun's Orchid (Phaius tankervilliae) thrives best in dappled shade, making it a treasure for gardeners trying to grow something beneath a canopy of trees.

"But orchids are fussy and demanding," you might be thinking. Relax. Fond of our naturally acidic soil, this "terrestrial orchid" needs no special pots and fiber mixes, but thrives in the ground or a large flower pot year after year. It wants only to be mulched with oak leaves or chipped tree trimmings to keep the soil damp. Feed the soil it lives in three or four times a year with 3 tablespoons of fish emulsion mixed into a gallon of water. Slosh this solution around the base of the graceful, tropical-looking plant.

A bouquet of those elegant stalks is beautiful at your church's Easter service. Potted specimens are thoughtful holiday gifts for beginning gardeners because they are so undemanding.

I began growing Nun's Orchids during the early 1980s, when they were rarely sold to the public. It pleases me now each spring to see them offered by many garden shops and nurseries, often in full bloom and at an affordable price, begging to be tucked into a shady garden nook, or grown on a shaded patio in a large decorative pot (be sure it has a drainage hole) filled with a humusy soil mix.

I am very fond of Lambert potting soil or the increasingly available "spent mushroom compost" sold in bags at garden centers. Mix in a few handfuls of wood-chip mulch to loosen the texture of either mix, then transplant your Nun's Orchid into its new home.

Of course, it would not object if you put a couple of gallons of soil mix into a planting hole in a landscape bed to give it a good head start.

About the only ways to fail with this surprisingly tough customer are to let it dry out repeatedly, grow it in full-blast sun or water it with softened or recycled water. Many people get such a boost of confidence from growing their first Nun's Orchid that they begin to grow other kinds of orchids and soon realize that orchids aren't that fussy after all.

Don't be surprised in a few years if yours has grown so husky that you can dig it up and use an old kitchen knife to divide it into rooted chunks to plant elsewhere in your yard or in additional containers.

Indulge yourself or someone you love with the perfumed elegance and hopeful resiliency of this flower's living celebration of spring and faith and life itself.

John A. Starnes Jr., born in Key West, is an avid organic gardener and rosarian who studies, collects, cultivates and hybridizes roses for Florida. He can be reached at

Here's how to care for the Easter lily that lots of us will be receiving as gifts this weekend. This advice comes from the Clemson University extension service:

• Lilies like bright, indirect natural daylight, not direct sunlight. They like daytime temperatures between 60 and 65 degrees, slightly cooler at night. Avoid cold drafts or blasts of hot, dry air.

• Water your lily when the soil surface feels dry, but avoid over-watering. Remove decorative wrapping so the plant doesn't sit in standing water. Water several times, allowing the water to run out the pot's drain holes, then let the plant stand for a bit before you replace it in a decorative pot or wrapping.

• As the flowers open, remove the yellow anthers before they start to shed pollen. This lengthens flower life and prevents the pollen from staining the white flowers.

• As flowers wither, cut them off to keep the plant looking attractive.

Nun's Orchid is a fitting herald of spring 03/21/08 [Last modified: Friday, March 21, 2008 6:00am]
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