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Plant of the Month: Spathoglottis

Mai Tai

‘Mai Tai’ Patio Orchid

Latin name:  Spathoglottis ‘Mai Tai’
Common name:  Patio & Garden Orchid ‘Mai Tai’
Plant type:  Tropical plant
Blooming season:  Year-round
Flowers:  Classic orchid flowers 
Foliage:  Strap-like foliage
Mature height:  3 ft. (when in flower)
Spacing:  18 in.
Hardiness:  Zone 9
Soil:  Well-drained
Exposure:  Full sun to shade
Water usage:  Medium
Sources:  Local nurseries or mail order (next spring)

Ever hear of a plant that sounds just too good to be true? I do all the time, and to be honest, I should be called “the pessimistic planter.” I never believe what I hear about a plant until I’ve grown it myself. So it was with my usual skepticism that I heard about the new Patio & Garden Orchids, featuring a supposedly “ever-blooming” tropical orchid that would tolerate even a Texas summer in full sun or shade. The promise was 3-foot spikes of classic orchid flowers from the time of planting in early summer until frost. Then there was the “Wait, there’s even more!” line, saying that the plants could be moved inside as wonderful houseplants in the winter.

Somehow I managed to keep my sarcasm in check and not say, “Are you out of your mind?” Instead, I said, “OK, send me some, and we’ll see how they really do” — thinking to myself the whole time that they would last about a week of 100-degree days, then shrivel up and die.

This new orchid breed comes in five colors, but I was sent only ‘Mai Tai’, a lavender variety with white veins. I have to admit the first plant was very attractive coming out of the box. I was thinking the whole time that it was a shame to watch such a lovely plant get cooked in our summer, but such is the job of our Trial Garden at the Dallas Arboretum. So we dutifully planted two specimens in 20-inch-wide and 8-inch deep plastic pots. One pot we placed in deep shade. Then we put another pot in full blazing sun, with not even a smidgen of shade during the day. Well, I hate to admit my skepticism was misplaced, but it was. What the heck is an orchid in full sun doing blooming and growing to 3 feet tall — and during the hottest summer on record?

The ‘Mai Tai’ Garden & Patio Orchid in the pictures came from the grower in a 1-gallon pot with two little flower spikes. All summer long, those spikes kept blooming and new spikes appeared. I really expected the 100-degree-plus day temperatures to fry the foliage, but not even a spot was found. Those small 1-gallon plants filled their 20-inch pots completely and are still blooming. The pictures you see were taken of one of the plants in flower during the last week of September, and it has looked the same the whole growing season. Both the shade and the sun plants had 3-foot spikes of multiple 2-inch flowers all season, and the plant in full sun was actually the better looking of the two!

Since this plant did so well, I had to do a little research to learn more about it. I probably should have read up on it before planting, but as you know, I expected it to die anyway. These orchids are hybrids of Spathoglottis, a type of terrestrial orchid found in tropical regions of Asia and Australia. These particular hybrids were bred to grow outside in Florida, and to tolerate heat and humidity. They are a true tropical, described as hardy only in Zones 9 and 10. 

As we grew them this year, we found that they prefer well-drained soil, and a regular regimen of liquid fertilizer. Even though they are tropical, they don’t require heavy watering. Because they do not like to be over-watered, make sure your container soil does not hold too much water. I  look forward to seeing how they live up to the claim of performing well in winter as houseplants.

Finding this plant this fall may be almost impossible, since it is new to horticulture, but you should definitely be on the lookout for it next spring. (I thought I’d give you a heads-up before I buy them all!) Look for other colors: ‘Banana Daiquiri’, which has flaming yellow flowers; ‘Cosmopolitan’ with changing flowers that go from deep gold, purple, and pink to white; ‘Pina Colada’, which has pure white flowers; and ‘Sweet Sangria’, which has bright purple blossoms. I’ve been promised that these other colors do just as well as ‘Mai Tai’. This time I’m just a bit more optimistic, but I’m going to put them through the Trials again next year just to be sure.