Bletilla is a temperate, terrestrial genus of orchids containing 9 species distributed through China, Japan and Taiwan and Vietnam. The name is actually a diminutive of Bletia because of the resemblance between the two genera even though Bletia is a New World genus. The genera Jimensia Raf. and Polytoma Lour. ex Gomes are generally included into Bletilla. This genus is abbreviated Ble in trade journals.
The pseudobulbs resemble spreading corms which usually sit at ground level. Each pseudobulb generally bears several pleated leaves around 40cm long. The racemes of flowers emerge from the center of the years new growth before it is mature, during spring and early summer. The flowers vary in colour from white to purple, and all species have four pollinia. The tubers resemble a horn or claw. They are grayish-white or yellowish-white in appearance, with concentric rings and brown rootlets. They have a hard texture and do not break easily.
Bletilla species are generally hardy, though some need protection from severe frost. It is better to keep them in pots of well drained media so that water does not sit around the roots during winter when the plants are not actively growing. They should also be watered sparingly at the start of the growing season as the new shoots emerge, as new roots often do not follow for around four weeks afterwards.
Bletilla striata is the most common form found in the nursery trade and is often labeled simply as 'Hardy Orchid' or 'Chinese Ground Orchid' and is quite inexpensive. This beautiful and hardy deciduous orchid has the distinction of being one of the first orchids in cultivation in England dating from around 1794. The very flat knob-like tuberous root system is typically sympodial, expansive and each shoot is of annual duration only. On established plants, almost every new growth shoot has a flower spike before leaves fully develop. Each shoot can have up to fourteen beautiful rose-mauve flowers with a ruffled lip about 30mm diameter, scentless and looking something like a miniature Cattleya orchid flower. An established clump can have literally dozens of flower spikes flowering in the late Spring and the clumps only increase in beauty with time. They rarely exceed two feet in height.
The flowers and leaves are at the mercy of late frosts, which are to be avoided if at all possible with coverings of a sheet or newspapers. Resist the temptation to remove the mulch layer even if the new growths are raising up the mulch due to an early Spring, unless no more frosts are likely. Unlike most tropical orchids, B. striata has attractive foliage even when not flowering. The pleated, tapered foliage looks very similar to the juvenile leaves of many palm species. A well established clump of these in flower is quite beautiful and they are surprisingly hardy even into USDA Zone 5 with a heavy mulch. They easily succeed in USDA Zone 6 with only a moderate mulch of straw or leaves. These hardiness ratings only apply to plants in the ground with the idea of preventing the actual root system from being frozen. If potted, they should be placed in a frost-free location if winter temperatures go below freezing. The plant is generally considered hardy without a mulch if minimum winter temperatures do not go below 25°F.
They have a great reputation of being the absolute easiest orchid for a beginner to grow. Unlike most tropical epiphytic orchids, this plant comes from somewhat temperate zones and grows in soil rather than on trees and require no extraordinary care to grow successfully. They prefer well drained evenly moist soils that are high in organic material and that never dry out nor remain sodden. They are sympodial growers and will form handsome clumps in only a few years. Other species and hybrids are occasionally available, the most common being B. striata var. alba, a white variation of the rose-mauve B. striata. Bletilla ochracea, a somewhat rare species from Japan has unusual flowers with yellow sepals and petals with a red-marked white lip and is becoming more available to collectors. Bletilla Penway Dragon (formosana X szetschuaunica) is one of the exciting new hybrids that promises to become popular with collectors as it becomes more available.
Bletilla is used in Herbal Medicine (bai ji). When employed in herbal remedies, the tuber is peeled and dried in the sun, then cut into slices or ground into a powder.
Bletilla is associated with the Lung, Stomach and Liver meridians in traditional Chinese medicine, and has a bitter taste and cool properties. Its main functions are to reduce swelling and stop bleeding in the lungs and stomach. It is often used with gelatin, donkey glue and cuttlefish bone as part of a larger herbal formula.
Among the modern uses for bletilla are treatment of sores, ulcers and chapped skin. Because of its astringent properties, Bletilla is often used to stop bleeding caused by traumatic injuries, heal wounds, reduce swelling, and promote regeneration of tissue. When used with other herbs, bletilla can help treat coughs and phlegmy obstructions.
The typical dose of Bletilla depends on the condition being treated. Usually, practitioners recommend between 3 and 15 grams of bletilla, taken as a powder. Larger amounts can be applied to the skin, usually mixed with sesame oil.
Whole, dried Bletilla root is sold at many herbal shops, Asian markets and specialty stores. Bletilla powder is widely available, as are some decoctions that contain Bletilla.
Bletilla is incompatible with aconite root, and therefore should not be taken with aconite root or any formulas that contain it. As of this writing, there are no known drug interactions with bletilla. As always, make sure to consult with a licensed health care provider before taking bletilla or any other herbal remedy or dietary supplement.