Growing orchids in the back yard is as unlikely a notion as a snowstorm in August. We think of orchids as exotic tropical flowers, but in fact...

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Growing orchids in the back yard is as unlikely a notion as a snowstorm in August. We think of orchids as exotic tropical flowers, but in fact some grow wild as far north as Alaska.

Orchids belong to the largest family of flowering plants on Earth, with more than 20,000 species. Sixty of these species are hardy terrestrials native to North America.

And it is possible to grow them in normal garden situations, without a greenhouse. Some even require freezing winter temperatures to put on their best flower display, which may be why more orchids are native to Alaska than Hawaii.

“The Gardener’s Guide to Growing Hardy Perennial Orchids”

William Mathis
The Wild Orchid Co., 2005

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Of course, these beauties can’t be grown without some special care, and this book not only inspires with color photos of showy lady slippers and torch-like fringed orchids, but also provides detailed instructions on cultivation.

Soil preparation is key because most orchids need very sharp drainage. The other main requirement is simply to refrain from fertilizing because orchids have low nutrient needs and resent a rich diet.

Just think of orchids growing wild in rainforests, attached to trees like limpets and waving their hairy roots about in the air, and you’ll get the picture of how independent these plants prefer to be.

Mathis, a research scientist and experienced orchid fancier, rounds out the book with propagation instructions, suggestions for orchid-companion plantings and a list of sources.

Valerie Easton also writes about Plant Life in Sunday’s Pacific Northwest Magazine. Write to her at P.O. Box 70, Seattle, WA 98111 or e-mail planttalk@seattletimes.com with your questions. Sorry, no personal replies.