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Orchids of Thailand

By Arjan Germy

blossom THAILAND IS JUSTLY famous for its many beautiful orchids, or Gluay Mhai in Thai. It's surprising to many visitors that these tropical plants can be found flowering during the winter in the north of Thailand, when the weather is cool. January is a great month to see an amazing range of shapes, sizes and vibrant colours of Thailand's orchids. Although the weather is so dry at this time of year, orchids employ many different ways of retaining the moisture necessary for flowering. Some have spongy roots that can absorb water from morning mists, other have bulbs that store the precious liquid of the rains of the previous year, while still others shed their leaves so that none of the moisture needed for blooming is wasted. Orchids naturally grow on the bark of forest trees and collect much of their water and food from rain water running down the trunks, and are classified as epiphytes because of this way of growing. In the wild, these winter-blossoming orchids make a wonderful splash of colour at a time when the woods are dull and drab, with many trees having lost their leaves. The orchids will flower again in August, in the middle of the abundant rains, and then collect water and food during September downpours to provide the energy for flowering again the following January.

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.

orchid blossom 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.

orchid blossom 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 Hybridization

Although 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:-

getting pollen Step 1 : Pollen is taken from the male parent and placed on the stigma the female receptive organ, of the female receptive organ, of the female parent that has been selected
maturing Step 2 : once fertilization has taken place it may take anything from a month to over a year for the seed pods to mature. Once maturity is reached, the seeds are harvested and taken for germination.
germination Step 3 : The precious seeds are germinated on a sterile sucrose growth medium, as soon as possible, to ensure that they do not lose their ability to produce new shoots. Even under ideal conditions, the seed can take anywhere between a few days to several months to sprout.
seedlings Step 4 : Between six and twelve months after germination, the orchid seedlings are moved from their flasks to pots containing a carefully balanced soil mixture that is as similar to their natural home as possible. As the plants grow, they are moved to yet larger pots.
growth Step 5 : It may take many years for an orchid hybrid to flower, and it is only then that the success of the breeder can be assessed. Because of the many different flowers that will arise from a hybrid cross, each are must be carefully examined and recorded to determine the best ones for further propagation.
replication Step 6 : Once a hybrid has been acclaimed for its beauty, it is then multiplied using a technique called tissue culture. The growing point, or meristem, of a new shoot is removed and grown in a special culture medium in a flask. These flasks are then continuously agitated on a shaking tray, which makes the cells divide rapidly. After a few months, many small growths appear, each of which produces a tiny orchid plant.

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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