The trigger for plants to flower is day length, orchids are no different. Some flower as days get shorter, a good example is the cymbidium orchid, flowering in early winter. Others bloom as days lengthen and here we find the nun’s orchid in bloom in late February and early March. If you visit your local retail greenhouse, there’s a good chance you will find these lovely orchids in flower, easy to grow, I’d like to give a little history and care advice.
Botanically knows as Phaius tankervilleae, the phaius means dusky, the latter after Lady Emma Tankerville, her married name derived from a town in Normandy, France -Tancarville. With many common names, the nun’s orchid is used most often and that in reference to the hooded flower, like a nun’s veil.
Originally collected in China by John Fothergill in 1778, a plant was grown in Lady Tankerville’s large hothouse, she was known for her extensive collection of exotic plants in London, England. Both her and husband had their own collections, she also enjoyed botanical drawings, he shells and maps. The orchid was named in her honor by Joseph Banks at a time when Linnaeus “Species Plantarum” was still relatively new, first published in 1753. This was the union of Greek and Latin which gave us the identifying language of plants, animals, and shells.
In the wild the nun’s orchid grows in swampy areas in slightly acidic soil. Hardy to zone 8 (Florida), if temperatures drop to 40 degrees, it must come inside for the winter. Large plants, the flower stalks may rise to 5’ and flowers are arranged in single file along the scape. The fragrant flowers may number in the hundreds, in bloom for 6 weeks. Easily grown, keep moist in a partial sun exposure. Not difficult to divide, which is good as each plant can become sizable. Best accomplished after the flowering period, simply split the bulbous rhizomes apart and repot. Feeding is once a month with a balanced fertilizer like 20-20-20.