Exotic Natives: Appreciating & Growing Hardy Orchids

Wild Lady's Slipper Orchid

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Orchids are fancy, exotic flowers that evoke steaming jungles and faraway lands. But if you are committed to growing native plants in your garden, orchids are still an option. Orchids don’t have to be exotic imports that require a resource-intensive greenhouse. Some orchids are helpful pollinators that grow naturally in your own backyard.

Looking Past Lady’s Slippers

By far the best-known native orchid is the lady’s slipper. Lady’s slipper orchids are in the genus Cypripedium in the Orchidaceae family. Twelve of the 50 species of lady’s slipper orchid are native to the United States. Each of them would make an unusual and attractive addition to the home garden, but lady’s slippers are not the final word in native orchids. North America has about 250 indigenous orchid species, about half of which are threatened or endangered. They grow in woodlands, prairies, and wetlands in every state of the U.S. and most of Canada.

A Lady’s Slipper orchid. Source: Adobe Stock Photos

Finding Native Orchids

Finding native orchids in the wild is mostly a matter of knowing where to look and keeping a sharp eye out — many of them are small and easily overlooked. Go Orchids is a database developed by the North American Orchid Conservation Center (NAOCC). It contains detailed information on more than 200 orchid species found in North America, including growth habits and provenance.

Finding orchids to grow in your own garden is more difficult. You should never harvest wild orchids (or other wild plants) for personal use. Doing so damages and impoverishes the ecosystem from which the plants are dug. Wild-harvested orchids are unlikely to survive transplant, anyway. They depend on symbiotic fungi in the local soil that rarely transplant along with the removed plants. Further, it is illegal to harvest orchids on federal lands and in most other places.

There are a few legal sources of lab-grown North American orchids. They mostly sell lady’s slippers, although you can find a few other varieties. It’s important to find a reputable nursery because many commercially available orchids are part of the illegal trade of wild-harvested plants. The website Botany Boy maintains a vetted list of orchid suppliers. 

Growing Native Orchids

Even though native orchids are adapted to local conditions, they can be quite challenging for gardeners because of their unique growth habits, including the aforementioned dependence on symbiotic fungi. Spangle Creek Labs and other orchid growers provide growing instructions for the species they supply, and local native plant societies are an invaluable resource. The book Growing Hardy Orchids is not limited to North American natives, but does contain a wealth of practical advice for would-be orchid gardeners. With perseverance and research, you can fill your garden with exotic native flowers.

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Gemma Alexander

Gemma Alexander has an M.S. in urban horticulture and a backyard filled with native plants. After working in a genetics laboratory and at a landfill, she now writes about the environment, the arts and family. See more of her writing here.