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Orchids: Tropical Paradise

by Mary Jasch

Digging tropical orchids lately? Two breeders tell DIG IT! what’s new and fascinating and how to grow readily available orchids with ease.

Carter and Holmes Orchids, orchid hybridizers/growers in South Carolina, were known for corsage cattleyas when they started the business in 1947. But wearing corsages is largely a fashion of the past and today, instead of cut cattleyas, the company sells cattleya plants and breeds and sells many kinds of orchids including phalenopsis, lady slippers, dendrobium, oncidium and less common varieties.

Carter and Holmes hybridizes orchids for fragrance, multi-seasonal bloom and longer bloom time. About 2/3 of their business is retail (Internet and mail order), 1/3 wholesale to shops, garden centers and nurseries.

Two of Carter and Holmes Orchids hybrids:
• Newberry Parfait Picotee, an awarded phalenopsis popularized globally, spikes twice a year, blooms winter and summer. A mature plant can bloom six months or longer.
• Pinocchio lady slipper –a paphiopedilum. A mature plant in a 5-inch pot can bloom three or four years at a time. Buds follow each flower and the spike grows 2-3 inches longer every time a bud comes out.

Mac Holmes, president, likes phalenopsis as a beginner’s orchid for several reasons:
1. They bloom a long time. Small plants (3-inch pot) bloom a couple months and larger plants (4- to 6-inch pots) can bloom six months or longer. As the plant gets larger and older, it gets stronger with two or three more blooms per spike per year.
2. The minimum amount of light they need to grow well and rebloom for next year is lower than the minimum for other varieties.
3. Plus, they have keikis (Hawaiian for ‘baby’), little plantlets that grow on the spikes. When one grows a good root system, cut it off and plant it in its own pot.

But what about the symbiotic relationship between orchids and fungi in nature? Don’t cultivated orchids need fungi, too, to live?

Says Holmes: “Orchids that grow in different parts of the world do have symbiotic relationships with fungus. If orchids don’t have what they get in nature, we have to provide it in another way.”

The most important time in a wild orchid’s life to have a symbiotic relationship with a fungus, he says, is when the plant is germinating and starting to grow. Orchid seed is like dust – maybe millions per pod – and lacks a food source like other seeds have. That’s when fungi provide them with the sugars they need to get started.

At Carter and Holmes, seedlings at that stage are in flasks on a medium called agar, a gelatinous mixture that includes the nutrients and sugars the little plants need.

There are no pollinators here, only Fred.

Ever hear of Fredclarkeara After Dark (Mormodes Painted Desert x Catasetum Donna Wise)? It’s the blackest orchid to date and, according to Fred Clarke, its creator, it’s the blackest flower in the entire plant kingdom. The very blackest of all is a cultivar, F. After Dark ‘Black Pearl.' Clarke owns Sunset Valley Orchids, California, and caters to orchid hobbyists.

Black Pearl is fragrant, blooms around Christmas, and produces 20-25 flowers on a pendulous inflorescence, with two to three inflorescences per pseudobulb, so it’s common, he says, to have 75 flowers on a mature plant in a 5-inch pot.

“It’s very exciting in the marketplace having black orchids. We work on producing new hybrids all the time. I view myself at the cutting edge of hybridization, the breeding collection/selection of my plants is so well developed over the last 30 years that what I’m producing and offering is unique to my nursery. Myself, I’m really a hobbyist gone wild.”

His specialties are cattleyas and catasetum. He hybridizes compact orchid plants that flower in 4 and 5-inch pots and have a small “foot print,” so hobbyists, who need all the space they can get, can squeeze them into their growing area.

Standard cattleyas cover a square-foot, but four or five compacts will fit in that same square foot with just slightly smaller flowers. Some compacts are bred to bloom twice a year by combining spring- and fall-blooming plants. That equals more blooms per square foot.

Clarke also breeds for multiple blooming, strong upright stems and a nice show of color, especially yellow, orange, red, and every color in-between. But not for fragrance.

“A lot of orchids with those colors are pollinated by hummingbirds so they’re attracted by sight. Many red, yellow and orange cattleyas don’t have much fragrance because in nature they don’t need fragrance to get pollinated; they use their color. Other cattleyas that are pink, light lavender, white are more fragrant because they rely on their fragrance more than their color. That’s why they’re pale colors; they attract through their scent,” says Clarke.

“Pollinators are only adapted to the species orchids that have grown and evolved over time in nature. Pollinators probably cannot pollinate a hybrid because the form and the flower embody characteristics of 2, 3 or 5 or 20 different species, so the pollinator has to be just the right size or be attracted to that particular scent. Now we’ve mixed that all up so those things aren’t present. So we use a toothpick.

“All plants are pollinated,” he continues. “So if the pollinator is extinguished, the plant may die out. If the plant dies out, the pollinator may be extinguished. There’s a symbiosis between pollinator and plant. This is critical. If one of them dies out, you can lose an entire species. That’s probably why orchids are so fascinating – because the pollinators are highly evolved into one single species of one genus. They won’t even cross two different species within a genus. That’s partly what people find intriguing.”

How to Care for Orchids
Most available orchids are tropical and subtropical, so their care is similar and, in nature, most are epiphytes with similar conditions. It’s easy to care for them by remembering their habitat: bright mottled sunlight in the forest canopy, rainfall and whatever comes with it, then dryness between rains.

Water on a wet-dry cycle. Water thoroughly and then let the mix dry between waterings. When in doubt, don’t water. People kill orchids by not letting the mix dry, by letting the plant stand in water, or by not changing the mix when it begins to sour or turn to mulch. Peat-based mixes stay moist longer than fir bark-based mixes, so need less frequent watering, perhaps only once every two weeks. Always check the soil.

If root tips don’t dry out between waterings, they start to rot off. Then the plant starts pulling water out of its leaves. The leaves go limp and look like they’re wilting. “People are used to seeing houseplants like peace lilies and they know when a peace lily goes limp, that if you water it the next day, it’ll pop back up again. If you water a drowning orchid, it doesn’t pop back up again. That’s how they kill them,” says Mac Holmes.

When in doubt, give more light. Just don’t burn their leaves.

When in doubt, use less. Fertilize lightly, year-round. Throughout the year in nature, epiphytes get what the rain brings. Buy a fertilizer with lower nitrogen from nitrates or ammonia, not urea. Read the ingredients. Excess nitrogen causes the plant to stop blooming.

Holmes suggests staying from organic fertilizers if your orchids are in a peat-based mix or if they are terrestrial, like many lady slippers are, to avoid bacterial and fungal problems

Repot an orchid to replace old mix with fresh, not necessarily to put it in a larger pot. Over time, the mix sours, pH changes and, because it turns to mulch, it holds water longer than you want it to – all root killers. Lady slippers are less tolerant to these conditions than Phalenopsis are, so repot them more frequently.

Why doesn’t your orchid bloom?
• Insufficient light
• Too much fertilizer.
• Sour or decomposing mix

Says Fred Clarke: “Orchids are really unusual plants. They don’t have root hairs. They have pseudobulbs that store water – like cactus. The plants, the way they grow, their strategies to get pollinators…. Orchids are compelling. A lot of people get involved because they see the colors, or they want to have something really exotic. Then they realize there are over 30,000 species of orchids and then think of all the combinations you can make by breeding them together. It’s limitless. There’s so much to learn and study about them. It’s really good.”

Go ahead. Treat yourself. Visit an orchid show at a nearby botanical garden and enjoy these exotic wonders.

Carter and Holmes Orchids:
Sunset Valley Orchids:
* Main photo: Sharry Baby 'Sweet Fragrance' Oncidium, courtesy Carter and Holmes Orchids

Orchid Shows
New York Botanical Garden:
Longwood Gardens:
Deep Cut Orchid Society:
American Orchid Society:

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published February 08, 2011

Photos to enlarge

Newberry Parfait Picotee, photo: Carter and Holmes Orchids

Pinnochio Lady Slipper, photo: Carter and Holmes Orchids

Oncidium Sharry Baby ‘Sweet Fragrance,’ photo: Carter and Holmes Orchids

Fredclarkeara After Dark, photo: Sunset Valley Orchids

Orchid hybridizer Fred Clarke in his greenhouse, photo: Sunset Valley Orchids

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