Hyacinth Orchid – Bletilla striata

I first encountered hyacinth orchids at a friend’s house in southern California. The air there has little humidity with which to retain temperature, so even in summer the evenings are cool. Her house had a wide patio with broad terra cotta tiles that radiated heat long after the sun had set. An outdoor oven held a prominent position near the center of the patio, and I spent many a night sitting round a fire there, conversing in low-key contentment. The back garden was home to several large ponderosa pines (Pinus ponderosa), whose fragrant resin perfumed the air as headily as any incense.

Around the edge of the patio, just beside the house, there wound a narrow bed full of spider plant (Chlorophytum comosum) and something with broad, strap-like leaves which was hitherto unknown to me. Such a bright green those leaves were, and their many parallel veins made prominent ridges in a form not unlike that of montbretia (Crocosmia sp.). On one particular evening, a leaping tongue of the firelight chanced to glister upon the outermost petal of a magenta flower. I rose to investigate, and found it to be an exquisitely formed orchid, held trembling atop a delicate stem. Such a dainty fringe upon its lip, with little white highlights like lace trimming. Though stunning in the dark, it was even more lovely come daylight, when the sun revealed that sparkle in its petals which is characteristic of certain orchids, and the depth of its potent color. How incredible that this orchid can thrive outdoors, in normal garden soil, even weathering light frosts without turning a leaf. The flowers, rather than wilting in the heat, seemed to bask in it, opening freely one after the other. Though unscented, the sight of them never failed to delight me (and I can be rather dismissive toward unscented flowers).

Range and habitat

Hyacinth orchids are terrestrial, meaning they grow in the ground, in soil (rather than epiyphytically, in tree bark).

Hyacinth orchids are native to China, Korea, and Japan.

They prefer sandy soils on grassy hillsides or woodland margins.

Flowers appear from early spring through early-mid summer. Flowers are magenta in color and are bilaterally symmetrical (symmetrical only along a single unique plane).

Medicinal Uses

Hyacinth orchids are important medicinal plants in both Korea and China, and have been used in Chinese traditional medicine for over 1,500 years. The fleshy roots (pseudobulbs) are collected in the dormant season, dried, powdered, and mixed with other ingredients to make medicines.

  • The dried, powdered pseudobulbs can be mixed with sesame oil to form a poultice, which can be applied externally to treat burns, sores, abscesses, and cuts.
  • In Korean traditional medicine, powdered hyacinth orchid roots are used to treat:
    • Coughing up or vomiting blood
    • Peptic ulcers
    • Wounds
    • Boils
    • Acute bacterial infections
  • In Chinese traditional medicine, the powdered roots are used in conjunction with other herbs to treat:
    • Fever
    • Inflammation
    • Chest complaints
    • Bleeding
      • Nosebleeds
      • Uterine bleeding
    • Hemorrhages
      • Stomach hemorrhages
      • Lung hemorrhages
    • Skin irritation
    • Wounds
    • Bacterial infections
    • Powdered Bletilla striata pseudobulbs are particularly effective against the endotoxin produced by whooping cough (Haemophilus pertussis).

Other Uses

  • When fresh, the bulb is mucilaginous, and its excretions can be used to make an invisible ink. This is done by writing on paper, letting the writing dry, and then wetting the paper and holding it up to the light to see the writing.
  • The extract of the fresh pseudobulbs is also used to make ink glossy. This is done by mixing the extract with ink.

Etymology and Naming

  • Bletilla means ‘resembling Bletia’. Bletia is a genus of somewhat similar terrestrial orchids native to Florida, Central and South America, and the West Indies.
  • Striata means ‘with a ridged, rippled, or with a striped or lined surface’, and is derived from the Latin word ‘stria’, meaning ‘furrow’.
  • Korean name is baek-geup
  • Japanese name is shiran (シラン)

Other common names:

  • Urn orchid
  • Hyacinth bletilla
  • Hardy orchid
  • Chinese ground orchid

References

  • 국립수목원. (2010). Botanical Art of Korean Medicinal Plants 세밀화로 보는 약용식물. GeoBook Publishing Co. (Pages 160-161). ISBN 978-89-94242-00-2
  • Gledhill, David. (2008). The Names of Plants. 4th ed. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. (Pages 73, 363). ISBN 9780521685535
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