July 11, 2011

It Had to Start Somewhere- Phalaenopsis species

P. amboinensis

Over the last 40 years that I have grown orchids, I have seen a lot of changes in both species and hybrids. I can remember looking at a Shaffer Orchids Catalog in the early 1980s, and marveling at one of the first modern yellow Phalaenopsis hybrids, using P. venosa as a parent. The flower was fairly small by today's standards, with an open form and low flower count, but it was yellow. This was really new stuff decades ago, was fairly expensive, and you got a small plant shipped in the mail. Nowadays, you can buy top-grade blooming, yellow Phalaenopsis  plants at a big-box garden center for the price of lunch. The same goes for pink or lavender or spotted or multifloral plants. In the middle 1980s, I recall swooning over the first pictures of what was called the "French Spot" Phalaenopsis hybrids, popularized by the French firm Vacherot and Lecoufle. They were rather weak growers but had radical, spotted flowers borne in branched flower spikes. They were expensive, and only the best growers could grow them. Today, you can find the robust descendants of such plants at Kmart in many cities. 

P. stuartiana

20 years ago, an orchid friend postulated that soon we would see a 'Volksorchid', i.e. a People's Orchid, in the same vein as the Volkswagen was the People's Car. Orchids would be "cheap and readily available everywhere", he said. "You're a fool", I said, yet he was indeed right. Where did all these new hybrids come from, and how did it happen so fast ? There are some easy answers and a few that are more subtle.

The parents of most of our modern Phalaenopsis hybrids stem from a small group of species, namely P. amabilis for white hybrids, P. venosa and P. amboinensis for yellow hybrids, P. sanderiana for pink hybrids and P. stuartiana for spotted hybrids. These are fairly small flowers with the genetics to pass their colors on to future generations without too many other bad traits. Only a few of the species make  good parents unless one was breeding novelty hybrids for collectors.

One of the notable 'problem' species, is P. gigantea, which can make wonderful hybrids with  great flower texture, high flower count, and beautiful spots. The problems are that the parent plant is, at best, a challenge to grow well, imparts giantism to its progeny, the progeny tend to have pendant flower spikes, and the progeny often have cupped flowers, albeit a cloud of them. Consequently, the species is rarely used in hybridizing. Many plant breeders would ask the same question of this species: Is the color and flower count worth all the extra baggage that the parent tags onto its progeny ? 

One of the real advancements in Phalaenopsis breeding has been the influence of the Asian growers, who have perfected not only amazing tissue culture techniques to grow flowering plants in record time, but their growing techniques as well. Many of the best Phalaenopsis hybrids come from China or Taiwan, where the plants have attained stupendous dimensions under expert culture, in nearly perfect greenhouse climates. The combination of great growing and tissue culture techniques have allowed  growers to select the best parents and offspring, tissue culture them, and bring the plants to market in half the time as opposed  to the days when I started growing orchids. Such short growth-cycle times allow growers to select fantastic clones of species and hybrids in a short amount of time, then line-breed them to attain even better progeny.  

P. amabilis, the progenitor of thousands of
modern hybrids
 As with all modern plant breeding, there have to be wild species to start the breeding process. The wild species have themselves gone from small, open flowers on small plants to improved versions with fuller-formed flowers on vigorous plants. One theoretical questions has always been " are we getting away from the natural shape of the flowers, in favor of an artificial flower standard ?" The same could be said of many things, including people ! Personally I'd rather spend my money on improved plants that have a good chance of living and growing well for me, than a wild-collected plant that will  have trouble getting established. Of course, there is a mindset of some growers who want the "old" varieties to see what Nature started with before we adulterated the plant to an unreasonable standard.

P. venosa

Fortunately, for anyone who wants such species, the prices have dropped to the point where good quality plants can be purchased for a fraction of what they cost 30 years ago. It is indeed an education to see the disparity between what the native species and the modern hybrids which arose from them. The same could be said of grandparents looking at their modern grandchildren.

There is certainly a place for those who wish to grow the species, with their particular growth quirks. We all need to remember that it was the wild species which were the start of all this "modern" breeding.

P. sanderiana

Craig Morell
Pinecrest Gardens

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