Are you looking for a plant with stunning flowers and handsome foliage that’s easy to grow and only a total idiot could kill? Then you want a nun’s orchid.
Yeah, yeah, I know. You’re afraid of orchids. You think orchids are demanding, finicky, expensive, and too much trouble. Well, listen up. If all men thought like that, we’d never have gotten married.
Nun’s orchid (Phaius tankervilliae), in my overbearing opinion, is the easiest of all orchids to grow — as easy as just about any houseplant you have. I got mine from a friend as a small division some years ago and it quickly multiplied to fill a 14-inch pot. Every year, it produces a spectacular floral display. Green spikes, looking a little like asparagus spears, skyrocket 5 to 6 feet tall. They bear dozens of fragrant, 2-3 inch blooms The blossoms are creamy white outside, amber-brown inside, with a purple lip. Hybrids offer some really wild colors, including orange and gold.
Now let’s talk foliage. Honestly, the foliage of most orchids looks like garbage — nothing you’d really want in the house unless you’re one of those obsessive recluses who collects balls of string and burned-out light bulbs. But nun’s orchid foliage is attractive. Large, broad, rich green leaves remind me of cast-iron plant (Aspidistra). They’re pleated and marked by prominent parallel veins, kinda like my legs.
Just kidding. I have gorgeous legs.
Nun’s orchid is a terrestrial orchid, meaning that it grows in soil. It blooms once a year, in late winter and early spring. It’s hardy outside in the Coastal and Tropical South (Zones 9 and 10), where it likes good soil and light shade. (Hot sun burns the leaves.) Indoors, it likes bright, indirect light and good drainage. The one shown here I photographed in the Southern Living lobby. We like to put on a good show for you people, so you’ll think we know what we’re doing and will do everything that we say.
The Grump lives in the Lower South (Zone 7B), where it often gets cold in winter, (26 degrees this morning). I bring mine inside to a bright window for the winter, then take it outside to the shade from spring to fall. Feed it monthly during the warm months with liquid 20-20-20 fertilizer. About the only serious problem you have to watch out for is scale. Small brown bumps on the stems and leaves accompanied by sticky honeydew are sure-fire signs of scale. I try picking off the scales and then spraying all leaf surfaces with horticultural oil. But if a leaf gets too infested, I just cut it off and throw it away.
Go to the greenhouse and get thee a nun’s orchid! You’ll find it’s a hard habit to break.
Can’t find nun’s orchid locally? For a mail-order source, click here.