Q) My moth orchid is simply gorgeous but there doesn’t seem to be any identifying label. What can you tell me about its history? John H.
A) Phalaenopsis are commonly sold today without botanical name tags – a development which is unfortunate because the hobbyist cannot trace the fascinating parentage of each hybrid. Each plant offers clues, however, in both its foliage and its blossoms. Understanding the distinctive characteristics of the species is the key to fully appreciating the most popular houseplant in America.
Moth orchids have not always been the stunning horticultural specimens found today. For over 100 years, hybridizers have been combining naturally occurring species from various parts of the world in an attempt to produce vigorous plants with pleasing colors. The public demanded traditional orchid hues – whites and pinky purples – as well as unusual shades - and many generations of breeding were required.
The big whites arrived in the late 1960’s. The National Flower of Indonesia, P amabilis led the way with its long arching spikes of nearly 4” white blossoms. The glamorous look of cascading flowers defined the public’s perception of Phalaenopsis and became the industry standard for pot plant production. My father recalls, however, that the early years of white breeding left a lot to be desired as the flowers were star-shaped and floppy.
Shorter whites soon became available and these combined the best varieties of P amabilis with another white species - P aphrodite from Taiwan. Together, P amabilis and P aphrodite remain the building blocks for nearly all white hybrids today.
A variation on the big white Phalaenopsis was the white with purple lip or semi-alba. A casual observer might not notice the hint of yellow in the throat of P amabilis but imagine if that color were hot pink. Hybridizers were successful in creating this striking white/purple two-tone effect by using the unlikely dwarf species P equestris. Though the width of the P equestris flowers was barely 1”, the throat was solid magenta and after selective breeding and decades of hard work, the public was rewarded with large blossoms of white with a purple lip.
The 1970’s brought in the large pinks. The already established big whites were crossed with the delicate pale pink species P schilleriana – which was known for having as many as 250 3” flowers in its native Philippines. It took many generations to create the big round pinks that we have today. Specimens of P schilleriana are commonly seen at spring orchid shows and are perennial crowd pleasers.
Breeders have found art shades (yellows, oranges, and reds) to be a little more challenging. It wasn’t until the 1980’s that substantial progress was made with these colors and even today there is room for improvement. Complex combinations of relatively obscure species are necessary in this line of work.
P amabilis, P equestris, and P schilleriana have made notable contributions to modern hybrids that are often overlooked:
1) Occasionally a flower spike will produce a baby plantlet off one of the nodes. It is likely that somewhere in the lineage is P equestris which naturally makes ‘keiki’s or babies after blooming in an attempt to colonize an area.
2) The newest leaves of a purple Phalaenopsis hybrid might display a lovely silvery green mottled appearance. It is likely that somewhere in the lineage is P schilleriana whose leaves are mottled.
3) After a plant finishes blooming, a flush of brand new buds may sprout off the stem. It is likely that somewhere in the lineage is P amabilis which regularly sends out more buds if no pollination occurred the first time.
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