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Hardy orchids look like a small miracle

Twenty years ago, a friend handed Dick Cavendar of Sherwood scads of shriveled brown leaves in tiny pots and announced, 'Here, you ought to grow these.'

The friend was going out of business and ill, so Cavendar didn't have the heart to say, 'No, thank you.' Cavendar shoved the odd-shaped bulbs in a corner of his greenhouse and forgot about them.

By spring, the plants were shouting at him. Imagine a big orchid with nothing but flowers coming out of a short green sleeve.

I'm sure there's a perfectly plausible and academic explanation for the way a hardy orchid blooms, but its flower power confounds even the best of them.

Cavendar Ñ his friends call him 'Red' Ñ says: 'I haven't the slightest idea. I honestly couldn't tell you how it's possible that a bulb the size of a walnut can produce a3-inch long flower.' And it does it every year with little care.

If that doesn't get your attention, the Pleione (say: PLEA-o-knee) orchid blooms at this time of year, outside, without any leaves or roots to speak of. Now that is a feat.

Plant pleione in the shade, nestled in the moss of a decomposing log or in a mossy hanging basket, and people will stop, stunned, as if they've hit a sliding glass door.

P. formosona 'Hot Pants' is a cheeky little number. It might not be obvious to the rest of you, but I think it actually has quite a bit in common with Napoleon Bonaparte. It's short, it's colorful, it has a big mouth (called a maw) and it's quite sure of itself. It demands attention. Then again, what 'Hot Pants' don't?Ê

I've grown 'Polar Sun' (white flower with yellow marks) and 'Blush of Dawn' (pale lavender) for several years. And I've got to be honest; I haven't taken very good care of them. Most of the year, the pseudobulb is in the cold frame in a pot, where it just sits like a green blob on top of the soil.

About the only thing you need to remember about hardy orchids is not to bury the bulb. I keep it cool, moist and in the shade during the summer. Just about now, I run out to the cold frame and start pleading to get back into the pleione's good graces.

No need. It's already blooming without me. This year, I'll show it off by allowing the flower to spring out the top of a wire teapot outside my kitchen window.

Growing hardy orchids is a guilty pleasure. They look so good, even when you've been a bad gardener.

Where to start the hardy orchid hunt? I've found them at Cistus Design Nursery, Portland Nursery and Red's Rhodies, that's Dick Cavendar's nursery in Sherwood.

This week's to-do list:

• Start tomato and pepper seeds inside now. (They need a six- to eight-week head start before transplanting outside.)

• Scratch in 1/4 cup of Epsom salts around roses. (Promotes healthy new growth. Use remaining crystals to bathe sore muscles.)

• Use 10-10-10 fertilizer on raspberries.

Garden gossip:

• The Master Gardeners Night Out benefit earlier this month netted $26,000 to provide training to new master gardeners next year. Go, MG's!

• Berry Botanic Garden Spring Plant Sale is 11 a.m. to6 p.m. Sunday, April 6. The sale is held at the Cedar Hills Recreation Center, 11640 S.W. Park Way, Beaverton.

'Anne Jaeger's Gardening Tips' airs at 9:56 a.m. Saturdays and Sundays on KGW (8). Jaeger's Web site is www.gardengal.tv.