Spring Flower Candy: Pleione formosana

I will be devoting a post to a different spring flower each day this week, and they don’t come much more special than Pleione formosana. I had always presumed these to be tricky customers, reserved for the kind of gardeners that keep pristine alpine houses, but after picking up three plants for a song at a car boot sale in Cornwall, I resolved to see if I could make them happy.

Pleione formosana, London, April 2015

As it turns out, Pleione formosana, somewhat oddly dubbed the ‘windowsill orchid’, is simplicity itself to cultivate. Mine are planted in a shallow terracotta pan in a very loose homemade compost made from decomposing bark and leaves. When not in flower the pot sits beneath a garden bench in cool shade and stayed outside all winter. This was a risky move as pleiones are supposed not to like frost: I would not recommend you follow my lead. Once I’d built my little unheated grow house in February I moved them inside, covered by a mound of dry magnolia leaves. The flowers began to form about three weeks ago and are now in full bloom. They are like exotic moths with fringed mouths projecting out beneath lilac-pink, wing-like petals, every inch as beautiful as the rest of the orchid family. The number of flowers has tripled year-on-year, creating quite a display. Each time I go outside I can’t resist looking in on them through the glass.

Pleione formosana, London, April 2015

After flowering come foot-long, creased leaves which project outwards from the tiny pseudobulbs that fuel the plant. These remain, looking rather aspidistra-like, until late autumn. In their native China and Taiwan they can be found growing on the forest floor in cool mountain habitats. Consequently they appreciate dappled sunlight, humidity and lots of organic matter. Given too much sun and warmth they may not thrive – hence they are better suited to a very well ventilated, frost free greenhouse than a windowsill indoors.

I am utterly besotted by these lovely little orchids and am trying a primrose-yellow variety called ‘Shantung’ this year (yet to flower). Next spring I have a yearning for a pure white cultivar …. or maybe a darker pink. Oh dear, I can feel a new addiction coming on! If, like me, you are interested to learn more about pleiones, then I have a discovered a very informative website, imaginatively named The Pleione Website, which offers excellent advice. Meanwhile, I hope I shall enjoy a fortnight or more with these charming orchids.

Pleione formosana, London, April 2015