Cultivating Orchids—How Patience Pays Off
GROWING orchids can be habit-forming. Some admirers spend hours studying the Latin names of their favorites so they can pronounce them properly. Why are people so fascinated with orchids?
The number of different kinds of orchids is vast. Some 25,000 different species have been discovered in the wild, and official organizations recognize more than 100,000 artificial hybrids! The label “artificial hybrid” does not mean that botanists have created new living organisms from soil, water, and air. Rather, such hybrids are the product of controlled cross-pollination.
Naturally occurring orchids as well as those produced with human assistance come in a variety of sizes. There are tiny orchids that are best observed with a magnifying glass, while others display themselves nicely on a windowsill. One orchid that grows in the Indonesian rain forest can weigh over 1,000 pounds [500 kg]!
Orchids flaunt a rainbow of colors and come in many shapes. Some of them bear a striking resemblance to bees, moths, and birds, while others with forms unlike anything you have ever seen before are particularly captivating, especially to breeders. For many years, only the rich could acquire these beautiful plants, but now orchids are available to those of lesser means. Here is the story behind the beautiful orchids you can enjoy today.
The “Orchid Rush”
People have admired orchids for centuries, but only in fairly recent times have growers learned effective ways to reproduce them. In 1856 the first man-made orchid hybrid flowered. However, cultivating these splendid but fussy flowers was often more tedious than delightful.
Orchid seeds are small—some are like fine dust. Handling such tiny seeds was, and often still is, a challenge, but the greatest difficulty has been getting them to grow. For decades, growers experimented with different materials and conditions to find the right medium for the germination of orchid seeds. In 1922, Dr. Lewis Knudson, a scientist at Cornell University in the United States, discovered that when the seeds were placed in a mixture of water, sugar, and agar (a jellylike substance extracted from seaweed), they sprouted and flourished. Soon enthusiasts were producing new orchid hybrids in abundance. This “orchid rush” continues, with many hybrids never before seen in public appearing each year.
But long before humans cultivated them, orchids grew in the wild. How do orchids produce hybrids in their natural environment?
Orchids in the Wild
When two or more closely related orchid species are flowering in the same area, there is a chance that a natural hybrid will develop. In nature, insects and other creatures act as pollinators. When a pollinator visits orchids in search of nectar, pollen from one plant sticks to its body and pollinates subsequent plants visited. The pollinated orchids may then become fertilized. As such, they will produce seedpods.
In time, the seedpod ripens, splits open, and sets loose thousands, or even millions, of seeds. Some of these fall to the ground, while the wind carries off many others. The seeds that take root have a hard time, and very few reach maturity. Those that grow as a result of pollen from one species fertilizing another species are known as natural hybrids. But how is an artificial orchid hybrid made?
Making the Hybrid
An orchid hybrid is the combination of characteristics from each of its parents. Hence, a grower first considers what kind of flower he wishes to produce. He may be looking for a certain color or stripes or spots. He may be seeking to combine those features in a plant with small flowers or large ones. Fragrance is another factor. With those points in mind, the grower selects two orchids that will hopefully endow their offspring with the desired characteristics. For instance, an orchid cultivator may choose the golden slipper orchid (Paphiopedilum armeniacum) as one of the species he will use. That orchid was discovered in China in 1979. It often imparts a rich golden-yellow to its hybrid offspring, some of which are stunningly beautiful.
Once the grower has acquired his two parent plants, he removes all existing pollen from the pod parent, the flower that will receive pollen from the other plant. The orchid that supplies the pollen is known as the pollen parent. With a toothpick or similar tool, the grower removes pollen from the pollen parent and smears the pollen at the base of the column of the flower of the pod parent. He labels this cross-pollinated orchid with the names of both parents and the pollination date.
Patience Is a Must
If fertilization takes place, an amazing thing occurs in the blossom of the pod parent. Threadlike tubes stretch out from the column to a part of the blossom known as the ovary. The ovary then swells and forms a seedpod. Inside, hundreds of thousands of tiny seeds are forming, each one connected to a single pollen tube. It may take months or more than a year for the seedpod to ripen. At that point, the grower gathers the seeds from the seedpod. He places them in a sterilized flask with a solution of agar and nutrients. If the seeds germinate, tiny orchids will soon appear like a carpet of green grass.
After a few months, the grower removes the seedlings from the flask and places them close together in a community pot. He keeps an eye on the seedlings, frequently watering them so they will not dry out. In time, the grower transplants his new orchids to individual pots. At this point, patience is a true virtue. Orchids may take from a few years to over a decade to bloom.
Imagine a grower’s satisfaction when he sees a blossom on an orchid he has worked to produce! If the hybrid is new, the grower can register it using a name of his choosing. All hybrids developed thereafter using that genus/species blend will thus be referred to by the registered name.
At times, a grower finds an ideal combination that creates a sensation among orchid hobbyists. He may receive awards, and his beautiful plants will command high prices. But regardless of the monetary outcome, the pleasure of seeing a blossom on an orchid that he has crossed is a delight.
Now you know that it took much time and patience to produce the beautiful orchids that you admire. But in reality, the work humans do in producing orchid hybrids is simple compared with that of the grand Creator of every living thing, Jehovah. He has put the complex genetic code in each plant, allowing for such gorgeous blossoms. We are merely the recipients of his artistic love demonstrated among the fascinating variety of orchid hybrids. It is truly as the psalmist David wrote: “How many your works are, O Jehovah! All of them in wisdom you have made. The earth is full of your productions.”—Psalm 104:24.
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