Hey Sister! Get A Nun’s Orchid!

March 4, 2009 | By | Comments (41)

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.

Nuns_orchid1 .

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.

COMMENTS

  1. Steve Bender

    Linda,

    Stems and leaves don’t live forever. If the rest of the plant looks healthy, it may be that this stem is dying of natural causes and will be replaced by others.

    June 12, 2014 at 11:00 am
  2. Linda Womack

    I have one stem on my Nun orchid turning yellow. I have it on my screened porch, indirect sunlight, temps in the 80′s during the day. Can someone tell me why the stem is yellow.

    June 6, 2014 at 12:30 pm
  3. Steve Bender

    Mona,
    If you give your plant good, well-drained potting soil, light shade, and a drink of liquid fertilizer about once a month, it should recover and bloom again.

    January 4, 2013 at 12:48 pm
  4. Steve Bender

    Chuck,
    I would bring the nun’s orchid inside any time the temp approaches the freezing mark. Mine’s sitting all budded up in my garage.

    January 4, 2013 at 12:46 pm
  5. Chuck

    My nun orchid in Jacksonville Starts blooming stalks in December. Is it ok to bring it inside on cold nights? Will that stop the bloom spikes?

    December 29, 2012 at 4:42 pm
  6. Mona Middleton McClendon

    I received a Nun’s Orchid when my mother passed away. It came into full bloom within a week of the funeral. It started to look kinda poorly the next year so I decided to transplant it and divide it. It has never bloomed again. From reading above, I guess I need to fertilize it first but is there anything else I can do to encourage it to flower again?

    August 7, 2012 at 5:12 pm
  7. Grumpy Gardener (His Magnificence)

    Yes.

    April 17, 2012 at 11:54 am
  8. Linda

    I have had a nun orchid for years (thanks to my mother, she divided up her plant), however this year, after blooming, i notice little pods after flowers died down, could they be seed pods?

    April 15, 2012 at 3:32 pm
  9. Grumpy Gardener (His Magnificence)

    It sounds like it’s getting too much water. Let the soil go slightly dry between waterings and make sure the drain hole drains freely.

    March 30, 2012 at 2:01 pm
  10. Cyndee

    I’ve had my Nun Orchid for years but the last few years I’ve had black leaves on it. It seems to start at the tip and die back. I’m planning on re-potting it because I’m thinking it may be root-rot? Also I don’t fertilize as often as I’ve been reading you should (1/2 strength orchid fertilier every time you water). Any ideas what’s going on?

    March 30, 2012 at 8:40 am
  11. Grumpy Gardener (His Benevolence)

    Sam, 6 hours of sun does not mean afternoon sun. Where you live, I would definitely give it light shade in the hot part of the day.
    Linda,
    The one in the photo came directly from a greenhouse. However, I have had one at home with a half-dozen bloom stalks at once.

    March 9, 2012 at 6:29 am
  12. Linda Christine

    Years ago, Southern Living had an article of Nuns Orchids and I had our local garden shop order me one..Over the years I have divided and shared and have 2 pots and each has two flower stalks…How in the world did you get so many blooms on this posted picture?

    March 5, 2012 at 4:32 pm
  13. sam

    I just bought my first 2 nun orchids at Home Depot. Someone mentioned they were expensive? These were only $8 and they’re a good 4 to 5 feet tale with blooms. I live in Pensacola (zone 8) & it’s Feb 13th. We had a hard freeze last night (20′s)so Home Depot had brought all the plants inside. I’m curious though – - most of you mentioned NOT to put it in direct sunlifht; however, the tag in the plant itself says “6 hours or more of sun.”
    It gets very hot here in Florida so I’m sure I will leave mine inside or on the porch because our sun will “cook” it. Check out Home Depot though – can’t believe how cheap they were. And remember, keep your receipt because if it does happen to die, they replace all your plants up to a year. I never buy plants at a nursery unless it’s something VERY unusual that can’t be found anywhere else. They don’t replace anything! Good luck to all.

    February 13, 2012 at 10:13 pm
  14. Grumpy Gardener (His Magnificence)

    Where in Louisiana? Does it die to the ground in winter?

    June 20, 2011 at 7:51 am
  15. Danette Bares

    I live in Louisiana and have had my nun’s orchid in the ground for 2 years. The foliage is beautiful but I cannot get it to bloom!! I water it regularly and it is in the shade. Help!!!

    June 18, 2011 at 9:31 pm
  16. Grumpy Gardener (His Magnificence)

    Ellen,
    Nun’s orchid does prefer light shade. However, old leaves do tend to break in the middle and fold over. You can prune these off.
    Propagating a nun’s orchid is easy. You just pop it out of its pot and shake all the soil off the roots. Then use your hands to pull apart the roots, making sure that each tuft of stems and leaves has roots. You can use pruners or a shovel to cut apart the clump if you need to. I just divided an old nun’s orchid in a 16-inch pot into a dozen smaller plants. Repot the new plants using fresh potting soil.

    May 31, 2011 at 11:04 am
  17. Ellen

    How do you propagate the stem of a nuns orchid? Mine is doing really well execpt the leaves bend over and turn brown. I think it maybe getting to much sun.

    May 25, 2011 at 8:49 pm
  18. Lynn

    Thank you so much for the encouraging words. I will let you know how it does. As soon as it grows a new leaf I will feel better. : )
    Lynn

    November 19, 2009 at 4:51 pm
  19. Grumpy Gardener (aka His Excellency)

    Nun’s orchid is easy to grow from divisions (that’s how I got mine and it quickly filled a big pot), so I think yours will be fine.

    November 18, 2009 at 6:18 am
  20. Lynn

    Potting soil was moist, not soggy and it has good drainage. I took it out of the pot today. All of the original roots died, so I cut them off. Many small roots starting to grow from the bottom and side now. I cut off all the dying foliage which left three healthy leaves. Hope this is going to get it going.

    November 17, 2009 at 9:31 pm
  21. Grumpy Gardener (aka His Excellency)

    Mikki,
    I still have mine outside in a pot. I’ve found it will take temps in the upper 30′s with no problem. I’ll bring it inside before a hard freeze. Let us know how yours does. Only thing to watch out for indoors is scale.
    Lynn,
    Hard to say what’s wrong with your plant. Does it have good drainage? Was the potting soil dry when you planted it?

    November 17, 2009 at 4:25 pm
  22. Lynn

    Help. I must be an idiot. I was sent a bare root Nun’s Orchid, looked very healthy. Planted it in good quality potting soil (Miracle grow). I planted only the roots not the base of the plant. The leaves are all dying and it does not look like it will make it. I have it indoors in East/South facing window, in a spot where it gets only bright light no sun on it. What can I do to save it? I so want this plant to live and thrive.

    November 16, 2009 at 3:45 pm
  23. Mikki

    I live just north of Seattle and bought a nun orchid in Jacksonville last spring. It was blooming when I bought it and I kept it inside until early summer when I planted it in a shady spot in my garden. I brought it in today in regular garden soil and am hoping to winter it over inside… I read through all the posts and am cautiously confident that I can do it… I have Phael’s that bloom over and over for me so why not a nun? I’m hoping that by next spring it will look like yours pictured above! Will let you know!

    November 14, 2009 at 9:20 pm
  24. Grumpy Gardener

    As Leigh commented above, you can cut and root the flower stalks if you want to propagate the plant. Otherwise, just cut them off.

    April 25, 2009 at 8:33 pm
  25. Leyla Dogan

    My nun orchid just finished blooming. Is is necessary to cut the stalks down or should I leave them alone?

    April 25, 2009 at 10:00 am
  26. Grumpy Gardener

    Nope. It’ll burn the leaves. Give it light shade.

    April 20, 2009 at 12:48 pm
  27. cindy

    so don’t put a nun’s orchid in the bright direct sun outside?

    April 19, 2009 at 6:19 pm
  28. Grumpy Gardener

    Aw now, you’re gonna make me cry.

    April 12, 2009 at 8:07 am
  29. Leigh Williams

    Steve, here’s the secret . . . I don’t actually know anything, but I can Google up a storm!
    My nun’s orchid has been in bloom for almost a month now. But I’m itching for it to finish up so I can start propagating a bunch of babies. Just think what a great gift they’ll make as a passalong!

    April 12, 2009 at 12:11 am
  30. Grumpy Gardener

    That’s a great tip, Leigh. From now on, when anyone asks about nun’s orchid, I’m going to refer them to you.

    April 9, 2009 at 7:53 am
  31. Leigh Williams

    I got mine from my aunt’s funeral . . . it was far too expensive for me otherwise! I feed mine with Espoma’s organic Plant-tone fertilizer once a month. I gave the 3-gal pot about 3/4 c of superphosphate after it had finished blooming last year. This year, it rewarded me with 13 scapes and well over a hundred blooms!
    And here’s something really neat . . . after it finishes blooming, you can take those flower stems, cut them into pieces, one node per piece, and then root them up! My reference said it takes about six weeks to get a new little baby orchid going.

    April 9, 2009 at 4:21 am
  32. Grumpy Gardener

    Patricia,
    In general, you shouldn’t feed a plant that’s not actively growing. That usually means winter. As far as fertilizer, I don’t think there’s much difference between 20-20-20 and bloom-booster.

    March 28, 2009 at 10:45 am
  33. Grumpy Gardener

    Philip,
    If you just recently brought the plant home, it may simply be adjusting to the new growing conditions in your home. Cut off the yellow or brown leaves, feed it as outlined above, and it should send out new green foliage.

    March 28, 2009 at 10:43 am
  34. Patricia

    You said to use 20-20-20 in warm months. Is there a time when you should switch to a bloom fertilizer? Is there a rest period when it should not be fed at all?
    thanks

    March 27, 2009 at 7:27 pm
  35. philip T Palmer

    What causes keafs to turn yellow, we have a full grown
    Nun’s in side It reall looked
    good in the begining, blooms
    were jusy beautful, but
    now leaves are truning.
    any advice….

    March 27, 2009 at 12:39 pm
  36. Grumpy Gardener

    I would use regular commercial potting soil. Make sure it’s somewhat moist when you add it. If it’s dry, it will repel water, so just add a little water and stir before you use it. The pot should have a drainage hole so that excess water can escape.

    March 24, 2009 at 2:41 pm
  37. Kelly

    I have a new Nun’s Orchid that I purchased from a florist. It’s blooming beautifully now, but I think it would do better in a larger pot. Is there a certain type of soil that I should use? What about drainage?

    March 24, 2009 at 1:27 pm
  38. Grumpy Gardener

    Well, I’ve seen them growing just fine outdoors in Lake Wales, which is the same latitude as Tampa, but doesn’t benefit from the moderating close proximity of water like Tampa does. So I’d try them.

    March 12, 2009 at 3:28 pm
  39. Ray

    Who’re you calling an idiot? I grew them fine in L.A., but here in Tampa, I don’t know…what do you think? It’s all new to me here, and it does freeze here you know. I would love a response…don’t want to throw $$$ away for disapointment and I’m not up to dragging them in.
    Ms.

    March 12, 2009 at 12:29 am
  40. Grumpy Gardener

    You wish!

    March 4, 2009 at 12:26 pm
  41. Lianne

    Wow! That is really gorgeous! (I was referring to the plant, not your legs. I’ve never seen your legs. Maybe we could get a side-by-side shot for comparison.)

    March 4, 2009 at 12:11 pm

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