What’s In Bloom: Meet the Nun’s Orchid

Nun’s Orchid
Phaius tankervilliae

The handsome, palm-like foliage of this terrestrial orchid gives rise to multiple spikes, reaching up to four feet tall, of white flowers that can be up to five inches across. Pinkish rose-colored cups accentuate the white flowers. A challenging plant to site initially; it requires well-drained soils that remain moist, though it is an adaptable and easy to maintain plant once established.

The Nun’s orchid will tolerate partial or full sun; though the warmer your climate is, the more this orchid will seek to be in the shade. Typically blooming between January and April, depending on your zone, it is hardy in zones 9-11, it is genuinely a stunning plant. At Bok Tower Gardens, you can see this plant in several places where we have sited it along woodland pathways.

The common name is derived from the hooded blossom, which resembles a nun’s habit. The genus Phaius is derived from the ancient Greek word “phaios,” meaning dusky or brown. While the specific epithet honors Lady Emma Tankerville, who had an extensive collection of botanical illustrations and her gardens at Mount Felix were well known well after her passing.

It was originally brought to the west from China and a native to temperate and tropical Asia. The plant is thought to have first entered the United States in Hawaii. It is now found in many locations around the world and has localized in South Florida.

In Arunchal Pradesh, India, the pseudobulbs, roots, and leaves are used in poultices, and the leaves and flowers are used for natural dyes, including indigo. In Papua New Guinea, after the flowers of Phaius tancarvilleae are smoked, they are then eaten as a contraceptive.

You can enjoy Nun’s orchid in various areas throughout the Garden and especially on the southeast path as you near the Singing Tower.

Brendan Huggins, Director of Horticulture, created this blog. Cassidy Jones, Social Media Coordinator, created the photos.

Learn more about Nun’s orchids
Unknown. “Phaius Tankervilleae.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 24 Mar. 2020, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Phaius_tankervilleae.

CBG, Staff. “Phaius Tankervilliae.” Phaius Tankervilliae | Chicago Botanic Garden, 2020, www.chicagobotanic.org/plantcollections/plantfinder/phaius_tankervilliae–nuns_orchid.

Cottrell, Vicki. “Phaius Tankervilleae.” Phaius Tankervilleae (Nun’s-Hood Orchid), 19 Jan. 2016, www.cabi.org/isc/datasheet/119077.

Ifas, Staff. “Nun’s Orchid.” Nun’s Orchid – UF/IFAS Extension, UF/IFAS, 2001, sfyl.ifas.ufl.edu/lawn-and-garden/nuns-orchid/.

Sheehan, Tom. “Phaius.” The American Orchid Society, The American Orchid Society, 24 Feb. 2020, www.aos.org/orchids/orchids-a-to-z/letter-p/phaius.aspx.