Now playing at your local garden center—wild orchids



Buyers for nurseries and garden centers clearly have their
ears attuned to all the trends we regularly discuss here. I can’t say I’m too
thrilled about some of the manifestations of that awareness—“upside-down” vegetable
gardens are now everywhere in the big boxes, and most of them are awful in a
garish plastic sort of way. If they work for people, that’s cool, though.

However, I am excited about native plant selections.  As I mentioned last week, woodland
plants that have previously been unknown to commerce are hitting nursery
shelves. Even native orchids. I found spiranthes cernua at one of our big
nurseries yesterday (at $3 a pop) and I’ve heard that native lady’s slippers
have been spotted at Lowes, of all places. Somewhere in the indoor plant
section. I can’t verify that one, but I look forward to placing some of these
Ladies’ Tresses somewhere in my garden once I figure out what they need and how
close I can get to providing it.

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Elizabeth Licata

Elizabeth Licata has been a regular writer for  Garden Rant since 2007, after contributing a guest rant about the overuse of American flags in front gardens. She lives and gardens in Buffalo, N.Y., which, far from the frozen wasteland many assume it to be, is a lush paradise of gardens, historic architecture, galleries, museums, theaters, and fun. As editor of Buffalo Spree magazine,  Licata helps keep Western New Yorkers apprised about what is happening in their region. She is also a freelance writer and art curator, who’s been published in Fine Gardening, Horticulture, ArtNews, Art in America, the Village Voice, and many other publications. She does regularly radio segments for the local NPR affiliate, WBFO.

Licata is involved with Garden Walk Buffalo, the largest free garden tour in the US and possibly the world,and has written the text for a book about Garden Walk. She has also written and edited several art-related books. Contact Elizabeth: ealicata at


  1. Hopefully these exotic natives are being propagated and sold to the big boxes by reputable nurseries and not dug from the wild. I can just picture an army of orange aprons descending on my tree line, spade and 4″ plastic pots in hand, digging up the thousands of trout lilies that have spread over the decades…

  2. The tricky part of growing natives, especially orchids is that they are often dependent on specific kinds of soil biota, and they often require very specific environments. Replicating those at home isn’t always possible. You are going to do your homework, and try to provide it, but how many people will take them home from Lowe’s without bothering to do the research?

  3. The reason that these woodland plants are ‘unknown to commerce’ is often because they are rare and/or extremely slow and difficult to propagate. Many plants, especially spring ephemerals, trilliums and such are still being poached and subsequently laundered through wholesalers to retailers who can then claim that they are “nursery propagated.” When you see plants like Cypripedium for sale at bargain basement prices, you need to ask yourself where they came from.

  4. Actually there a few longtime native plant growers in NY State whom I totally respect who grow a lot of natives. That is where I think these came from. Since it was late in the season (for these), the plants were on sale.
    I do not suspect any evil-doing here.

  5. We’ve done well with Spiranthes in the UK (and Dactylorhiza) for that matter. The trick seems to be to get the biggest healthiest plants you can. They seem to survive the transplant better and establish easier. Once established in the ground they go like trains – we keep finding seedlings!

  6. In our neck of the woods (Pacific Northwest), the locations where native orchids are growing are a secret passed down to the trusted few, because of poaching. It’s not just the soils, but the environment they grow in that’s important. How many people can duplicate an old-growth forest in their backyard? But people dig them up anyway.

  7. Also, your post title, “wild” orchids, implies that they are just that–wild, not propagated. If they are propagting, they should advertise “native”.

  8. I’m rather taken aback that a site so garden savvy and typically contientious is treating this subject in such a cavelier manner. I can assure you that any woodland native being mass marketed at Lowe’s was wild collected. I can further assure you that, while they may seem to thrive for a couple of years, most terrestrial orchids, especially lady slippers, will not live for long in the average garden. You must remember that most of your readers live on a square of clay subsoil in a subdivision that has no native soil. And no matter how much research you do, you cannot replicate the mattrix of plant associations, macchoryzial fungi,biota and so on that complete the necessary environment for these orchids. Please reconsider the need to own everything.

  9. For those in Massachusetts wanting rare native plants, I suggest shopping at one of the New England Wild Flower Society’s two locations. They do sell cultivated lady’s slippers. At $30 they aren’t cheap, but you can be sure they weren’t ripped up from the woods somewhere.

  10. I used the word wild because I like the word wild. Butof course, the plants I show here are nursery-propagated. There are many sources for such plants now. Which is great, as far as I am concerned.

  11. Spiranthes has been super easy for me — it literally grows as a lawn weed in my parent’s yard (NE Ohio). Acidic, heavy clay, full sun, and occasional mowing, and it is fine!

  12. Orchids are being clonally propagated, which is why you can now buy them for under $20 at Trader Joes.

    Still, I would do my homework on the plants growing requirments, and read the label on the plant to see if they have the propagated/ not wild collected disclaimer.

    – Ending with a question – do propagators have the ability to inoculate their crops with all the biota the plants will need to survive?

  13. Wow, native orchids would rock! I went on a native plant walk a couple weekends ago and we saw quite a few Ladies’ Tresses in the woods. Very cool.

  14. Ginny, that is an interesting post, about the Florida laws that allow propagation of endangered orchid species from seed or plant parts….sounds ok, except if you have people randomly taking seed and plant parts from the wild plants, you diminish their natural ability to propagate in their habitat. Sure, if just a few knowledgeable people do this, it may not harm the orchid’s future…but if enough people do it, it will. Perhaps Florida should have a license system for collecting wild plant parts? I know here in the Pacific NW one has to pay for a license to collect bear grass and huckleberries for just this reason (although it is difficult to enforce).
    I would also suggest that the kind of people who buy propagated orchids are not likely to be the kind who would slog through the wild to collect an orchid, so the argument that propagating them would prevent wild-collecting doesn’t make much sense to me.
    Meanwhile, why not buy a beautiful photograph or painting of the orchid, which doesn’t need the requirements of a rain forest or swamp?

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