Hobbyists who are keen on orchid history find themselves yearning for the early hybrids which filled the pages of The American Orchid Society and The Royal Horticultural Society magazines long ago. The story lines are captivating: a plant explorer returning from the Amazon with a never been seen species, a breeder who has paid a month’s salary to obtain a prized stud plant, a grower who has developed a breakthrough technique that could revolutionize the industry.
Most of those 100 year old hybrids cannot be found today for a variety of reasons. Plants that are passed down from generation to generation are not always cared for with the same passion that the original owner had. Orchids need to be given the proper sunlight and repotted periodically or they will go downhill. In addition, many of the earliest cattleyas were discarded in favor of the newer hybrids which, at the time, were seen as improvements.
In the 1980’s, my father began researching these early hybrids because they were not only the building blocks of our modern hybrids but also because they offered a deeper understanding of the idiosyncrasies of the jungle species. He needed to see the plants themselves, in person, and not from an artist’s rendering or old photograph. He put out feelers and contacted every orchid source he could think of – commercial growers, private collectors, botanical gardens. Despite the connections that he had developed over 40 years, he could not locate any surviving plants. With a heavy sigh, he decided that the only way to see the long lost hybrids was to make them from scratch – a process that takes seven years or more.
Being a lifelong collector of species meant that he already had the parents necessary to remake the hybrids. With any luck, the two parents bloomed at the same time so he could cross pollinate right away. More likely, however, the parents bloomed at different times so he had to store the pollen in the refrigerator until the other plant was ready – which could be up to six months later. Hybridizers use a tooth pick to transfer the pollen from one flower to the other.
What happens next is nothing short of amazing. The pollinated blossom folds within a few days and the flower stem begins to swell. Months go by and it’s still swelling. Finally, about a year after pollination, the fully swollen stem, now called a seed pod, begins to crack open – releasing millions of tiny tan colored seeds about the size of dust.
The breeder has to be cognizant of the ripened seed pod so that the valuable dust-like contents don’t blow away. My father carefully holds a paper envelope beneath the pod, gently taps the outside, and watches as the seeds fall out. Then it’s off to the laboratory where the seeds are planted in sterile beakers. Two years later, the tiny plantlets arrive at the greenhouse to be grown together in small ‘community pots’. In what seems like a lifetime, the babies are repotted several more times over the next four years, reaching adolescence then adulthood.
It’s a good bet that the cameras are ready when that first flower opens!