Orchids of Thailand
By Arjan Germy
There are more than 1,000 species of orchids in Thailand, and these come in a bewildering and dazzling range of colours - all the hues of the rainbow. Probably the most beautiful of the north's many orchids are the White, the Bright Yellow Oncidium and the Brick - red orchids. The White orchid is highly prized because of its extreme rarity in the wild. Few have ever been discovered in the wild, and it is only through the efforts of Thai orchid nurserymen to multiply it, that this gorgeous bloom can be seen. Many of the other orchid varieties are easy to grow, and abundant at any time of the year, thanks to the skills of the numerous Thai horticulturists, who have developed their art into a major export industry. Typical of these common orchids is the violet bloom that is often presented to visitors, for example to women passengers travelling on Thai Airways international flights.
The range of habitats of orchids in the wild is as astonishing as their great variety of blossoms. They can be found growing wild in almost all parts of Thailand, from the low plains of the central region to the highest mountains of the north, from the steamy jungles of the south to the arid northeastern plateau. Some, ground orchids, actually do grow in the ground, but the vast majority prefer a less hospitable environment, growing epiphytically on trees, or in cracks in rocks, where few other plants can survive. Some live in the permanent shadows of the tropical rain forest, where sunlight may never penetrate, while others bask in the full glare of the sun. With cultivation, and the creation of a multimillion Baht orchid export industry, orchid farms have sprung up all over the north of Thailand, and Chiangmai has become the kingdom's centre for cultivation, displays and exhibitions of these exotic flowers.
Asia has the widest variety of orchids of any part of the globe, and therefore has the greatest potential for creating the modern hybrids which outshine their wild parents in beauty and value. The first ever hybrids were produced in 1858, and more and more have been created, with some extremely complex crosses ultimately using 5 different parents to make a single new strain.
In the wild, orchids have preserved their identity by developing extremely complicated methods of pollination, and often have only one single species of insect that can perform this essential function. An example of this is the vanilla orchid of Madagascar, which has developed a flower which a long trumpet that it can only be pollinated by one species of moth which has a remarkably long proboscis or tongue. Although the vanilla orchid can be pollinated by hand, it takes a long time and is a very expensive process. This relationship between a plant and an insect is the reason why almost all the world's natural vanilla comes from just the one island. Some other orchids even have such a complex maze of petal structures that the pollinator can only escape from the flower by performing the correct sequence of operations necessary for pollination to take place.
The gorgeous colour and fantastic shapes of orchids, that make them such popular flowers, were developed by mother nature to attract pollinating insects, and in some cases to repel unwanted pollinators. Some orchids mimic the shapes and colours of insects like bees or wasps, or even spiders, to frighten off insects that can't perform the act of pollination for them. Everyone knows that many flowers have a wonderful scent, and that this fragrance is use to attract insects from afar. Many orchids have such a sweet smell too, but many of them are actually capable of moving their blooms to scare off or keep out unwanted flying visitors.
Unlike most plants, orchids don't like bees very much at all, and some have even developed bee-specific sedative drugs in their petals which send visiting bees to sleep and prevent them from stealing any of the flower's limited supply of the valuable pollen. Yet others close their petals completely until they are sure the bees has gone away.
Two of the most bizarre example of orchid "behaviour" are movement and the creation of complex odours. Some orchids can sense, by vibration, when the wrong kind of pollinator is approaching, and can wave their blossoms back and forth to imitate the moving of a flying insect. In this way the unwanted insect is scared off and the flowers then return to normal. When the right insect approaches, the flowers remain perfectly still, welcoming it with open petals! Many wasp species pollinate orchids, but some orchid species just can't tolerate wasps. Some of these, when they sense a wasp approaching, close their petals quickly and give off the scent of a female wasp ready for mating. If the approaching wasp is female, it smells a potential rival and flies off, but male wasps are so convinced by the scent that they attempt to mate with the flower. Both the bloom, with its virtue intact, and the satisfied male wasp end up smiling!
So just think, when you see some of the beautiful orchids growing in the farms around Chiangmai, or are deciding which to buy to take as a gift for a loved one back home, you're not just looking at a pretty face. Orchids are surely some of nature's smartest cookies as well!.
Orchid HybridizationAlthough orchid hybridization has been carried out for 130 years, many of the programs to breed ever more beautiful orchid blooms have been hit-miss and lacked continuity. Not so the breeding program at the Singapore Botanic Garden. This was initiated by professor Eric Holttum in 1928 and has been on going almost continuously since then. Today this beautiful and well organised Botanic Garden produces an astounding range of orchid hybrids for landscaping , commercial cut-flower production and specimen plants.
Those of you who grow orchids will know that the gorgeous blooms that you derive so much pleasure from never seem to set seeds. This is because of the absence of the natural pollinating insect that is specific to that orchid in its natural habitat.
Orchid breeding programs cut out of the middleman, or middle-insect as it is in this case, and ensure that pollen from one chosen parent comes into contact with the female parts of the other. It all sounds simple but in truth orchid breeding experience, and - most of all - a good portion of luck.
There are 6 basic steps to produce a hybrid orchid:-
Next time you look at a splendid, radiant hybrid orchid flower, remember the years of painstaking work that went on behind the scenes to produce such majestic beauty.
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