The captivating orchid
A POINT OF AWARENESS - Preciosa S. Soliven () - June 30, 2011 - 12:00am

Many orchid growers enjoy exhibiting their plants in orchid shows. Sponsored by local, national and international orchid societies around the world, these exhibitions offer growers the opportunity to display their efforts to their colleagues and the general public, and to receive recognition in the form of ribbons and trophies.

In 2006, my UNESCO work for APEID in Tokyo coincided with the annual Tokyo Dome Grand Prix Show, one of the greatest orchid shows in the world, co-sponsored by the diplomats with the biggest local daily newspaper, the Yomiuri. I was invited by Kay Siazon, wife of then Ambassador June Siazon. She had a special corner exhibiting the deep purple Philippine “waling waling” of Mindanao.

History of orchid horticulture

In 600 BC, Confucius referred to the orchid plant as “lan,” king of fragrant flowers. He said “Getting acquainted with good men is equivalent to a room full of lan.”

In 1731 the early import of orchids came from the Bahamas. Other orchids began to arrive and in 1794 there were 15 species collected in the greenhouses at the famous Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, outside London. In 1818, William Swainson came across some plants in Brazil that were stiff and leathery. He used them as wrappers for other plants he shipped to England. Mr. William Cattley became interested in them and decided to tend them. One of the plants flowered in November 1818 and looked like nothing Cattley had ever seen. The plant was new to horticulture and it was named “Cattleya labiata”, in honor of its rescuer and its large floral labellum.

The Sander family of England had collectors seeking out orchid plants worldwide. In l984 they employed 100 people just to pot the orchids being shipped in and had around 2,000,000 plants under their care. In 1848 Charles Power started commercial orchid production in Framingham, Massachusetts. This spread to Bound Brook, New Jersey, largest grower of cut orchid. A 100,000 square meters were devoted to orchids by the Armacost and Royston growers.

Other than growing bananas, sugar cane and pineapple the tropical climate of Hawaii was conducive to orchids. Y. Hirose in Hilo imported a wide selection of species which initiated orchid as an important agricultural industry between 1942 to the fifties so that Hawaii is referred to as the “Orchid Isles.” 

The sexual mystique of orchids

In the 20th century, new methods of germinating seed on agar in laboratories, followed by the discovery of cloning methods, made the mass production of plants possible. Orchids became much more affordable. There are approximately 25,000 species and more than 105,000 registered hybrid groups. All the members of the orchid family are related to each other by their flowers, according to Thomas J. Sheehan, well known orchidologist and lifelong educator of the Smithsonian Institute and the American Orchid Society.

Orchids have an unusual reproductive system. Instead of having separated stamens (male parts) and stigmas (female) as in lilies and hibiscus, orchids have a structure called “column” which is a fusion of the male and female portions of the flower. Waxy and white, it lies in the middle of the flower and sometimes hidden in the folded lobe of the labellum. The labellum is the largest and most colorful floral segment of the orchid. It serves as the landing platform for the pollinating insect.

Being an irregular zygomorphic flower in the plant kingdom, the orchid has three petals and two sepals with the labellum in the middle. In most flowers the pollen, the powder-like male reproductive cells are exposed on the stamens and rubs off when insects come in contact with the blossoms. Not so in orchids, for the pollen is packaged in small capsules called pollinia held up by stems called caudicle and in turn is connected to a sticky disk called viscidium, which readily attaches to and detaches from pollinating insects. An orchid pod may encapsule a million pollens.

Orchid embryo culture in a high school laboratory

Our high school students who have been engaged in a pilot tissue culture laboratory are experimenting with this right now. Actually one of the earliest applications of Plant Tissue Culture is the germination of orchid seeds “in vitro” or inside the bottles. The technique called Embryo culture enabled large scale production and propagation of new varieties and hybrids. Unlike the seeds of other flowering plants, orchid seeds are very small and have no endosperm or food source. To germinate in nature they find a ready supply of food in decaying organic matter released by fungi and bacteria. But only 10 – 20 percent of the total seeds in the pod grow. A Cattleya pod can release three to six million pollens. Embryo Culture however provides a controlled environment for almost the entire orchid seed to grow in to mature plants. The sterile nutrient in the bottles are like miniature greenhouses that will protect the seedling from the hazards of unfavorable environmental conditions ensuring the growing of orchid seedlings in great numbers. 

The orchidae alliance

The major classification of the orchid family was created by John Lindley in 1825, perfecting it for 40 years. For the arrangement of the orchid family I am using that of the noted classifier or taxonomist Robert L. Dressler from his book Ultimate Orchid.

The term “alliance” is used to designate a group of genera that have many common characteristics and can be used for breeding to produce new hybrid genera. The PAPHIOPEDILUM Alliance have four genera Greek word ‘pedilon’ means sandal or slipper, thus this orchid’s common name is “slipper orchid.” They are found worldwide in highland forests or North Temperate Zone. They can be found in preserved mountains of Davao, like Mt. Hamigitan. Most of the early hybrids were large, full, almost round flowers nicknamed “bullfrogs.”

The ONCIDIUM Alliance has 70 genera and 1200 species of orchids occurring naturally from Florida to Argentina. Its common name is “dancing lady orchids” for its flaring, bright yellow “skirts” or floral lips to the large pansy-like flowers of Miltonia in vibrant pinks, yellows and white. These latter hybrids are not usually seen in the Philippines. Some of the most popular of all orchids belong to the CATTLEYA Alliance. Once proclaimed “Queen of Flowers”, they have been worn as corsages for weddings and anniversaries, but their images adorn china plates, cigar boxes and even bottles of alcohol. Enthusiastic plant breeders continue to meet the demand for better hybrids.

The VANDA Alliance has more than 100 genera and 2000 species. Their fanlike foliage is their most distinctive feature. They occur most abundantly in southeastern Asia, tropical Africa and Madagascar. Since World War II the popularity of vandaceous orchids has increased dramatically specially in the tropical and subtropical regions including Florida. Most are warm growers and can be grown with little or no medium. The PHALAENOPSIS Alliance encountered a phenomenal surge in popularity during the 1st decade of the 20th century. They are also known as “butterfly orchids”. Currently the most popular of all flowering potted plants, there are 50 species ranging naturally from Taiwan south to Australia and from the Philippines west to the Indian Ocean islands. A spike of Phalaenopsis amabilis can have flowers open for several months.

Another popular orchid among Filipinos is the genus CYMBIDIUM. This thick petal orchid grows better in temperate countries. In 1799 Olaf Swartz coined the generic name from the Greek word ‘kymbos’, a boat shaped cup referring to the shape of some of the flower lips. During the Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368) cymbidiums were the favorite subject of Chinese painters. In 1910 Henry Huntington imported it from England for his famous garden in Santa Barbara, California. Widely grown in California, the state is the major commercial supplier of Cymbidium cut flowers.

Inspiring a passionate band of aficionados and businessmen

There is something uniquely captivating about orchids. Revered and cultivated for centuries in China, passionately coveted in Europe, the Americas and Asia, orchid societies have sprung in many countries, including the Philippines.

The Philippines is a natural haven for orchids, but it requires taking time to investigate these marvelous creation of nature whether its naturally occurring species or their manmade hybrids so we can propagate, preserve, culture, care and develop them to evoke a passion not only among hobbyists but businessmen that is insatiable.

Enjoy and catch the fever!

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