Unfortunate name aside, this orchid lookalike shines in fall

 

Picture the most exotic, tropical plant you’ve ever seen.

You probably thought of an orchid. Although we can grow them as houseplants, there’s nothing more amazing than to see orchids growing outside, often in the crook of a tree or clinging on a palm.

Alas, you won’t find a Phalaenopsis growing in a tree outside your Ozaukee County home anytime soon, but that doesn’t mean you can’t have an outdoor orchid.

Hardy orchids that will make it through a Wisconsin winter exist. In fact, some forms of Cypripedium, also know as lady’s slippers, are hardy down to 40 degrees below zero. Many originated in Asia, but there are lady’s slippers native to Wisconsin, although don’t be surprised if you haven’t seen them as they are tasty to deer, require specific growing conditions and are often stolen from the wild by unknowing or nefarious plant collectors.

Barring being fortunate enough to have a native orchid growing in the back yard, or spending $80 or more for a responsibly grown (which is to say, not taken from the wild) hardy Cypripedium and then building a fortress around it to protect it from hungry deer, there aren’t a lot of opportunities to have orchids growing in your garden.

That’s why I settle for an orchid lookalike that is putting on its annual show right now.

Toad lilies—Tricyrtis—are cursed with a common name that does no favors for this lesser known plant. Native to Asia, far prettier than a toad and not a lily at all, they prefer shady, moist locations and are well-equipped to manage Wisconsin winters.

 In addition to a terrible common name, they also suffer a fate similar to monkshood and Japanese anemones — they are often overlooked at the garden center because they are completely average in spring. It’s not until now, when trees just start to lose their leaves, that they show off what they hide the rest of the year.

Long, arching stems bend under the weight of dozens of tiny orchid-like flowers, each just a little over an inch wide, emerging from the leaf axis. The one I grow, ‘Miyazaki Hybrids,’ has purple-speckles on a creamy white background, a look that instantly says orchid. Deer will taste test them on occasion but happily pass them by for better treats if they’ve been treated with even a bit of deer repellent.

Anyone who doesn’t know better would assume that toad lilies are orchids, and I’m fine with letting them think so. It’s certainly easier, and cheaper, than shelling out $85 for Cypripedium from Plant Delights Nursery, which comes with a warning: “These should only be attempted by experienced gardeners.”
    

 

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Ozaukee Press

Wisconsin’s largest paid circulation community weekly newspaper. Serving Port Washington, Saukville, Grafton, Fredonia, Belgium, as well as Ozaukee County government. Locally owned and printed in Port Washington, Wisconsin.

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