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The Beauty of Thai Orchids

VISITORS TO THAILAND may have their interest in orchids first aroused by the bloom that Thai Airways service personnel give passengers to pin to their shirt or coat. This sort is one of Thailand's most common flowers, the mundane purple or violet orchid, but its very beauty may serve as the visitor's introduction to the nearly boundless variety and beauty of Thai orchids.

Thailand is home to over a thousand different species of orchids which come in every imaginable colour and shape and are seemingly adapted to grow in every hospitable and inhospitable climate and environment. Orchids can be found growing in Thailand from sea level up to one thousand meters elevation. Some grow in sunless, humid rain forests and others on the arid northeastern plateau, on the ground, epiphytically attached to trees, or growing out of crevices in mountain rocks.

The incredible variety of forms and colors which orchids take may be explained as adaptations designed to attract specific pollinating insects which allow the flowers to propagate in the wild. Not only are the plants specifically shaped and coloured, or have specific scents, to attract the desired pollinator, but some species have developed an array of defensive weapons and behaviours to ward off undesirable pollinating insects.

The form of some orchids mimics the shape of bees, wasps, or even spiders to frighten off unsuitable potential pollinators. Defensive behaviours for orchids which cannot endure the unruly pollinating behaviour of bees include the production of bee-specific sedatives which anaesthetize invading bees, preserving the flower's pollen. Others have developed the ability to move their blossoms, triggered by vibrations of undesirable pollinators, which scares the unacceptable insects off. Some orchids which cannot tolerate wasps as pollinators have evolved the ability to close their petals when they sense a wasp and emit the pheromone scent of a mating-receptive female. Female wasps are repelled and males attempt to mate with rather than pollinate the bloom.

Botanically, orchids belong to the same family of plants as do palms, grasses, and lilies. They are highly adaptable plants, some having a false bulb which enables the plant to store water against times of drought. Others are epiphytic, allowing them to absorb nutrients from the surrounding atmosphere.

There are six major groups of orchids. The Epidendrum group contains what are generally considered to be wild orchids. It is the largest orchid genus, containing over 1,000 species. The second largest genus is the Denobrium group, which grows all the way from the Himalayas, through Southeast Asia and down to Australia. The genus contains 900 species. Although orchid fanciers sneer at them, the ordinary viewer enjoys the flashy Cattleya group. Most of the varieties in this group are hybrids and colors can range from the brightly coloured violet and yellow variety to the subtly tinted cream-coloured variety named for H.M. Queen Sirikit. Another popular group is the Cymbidium Group, of which there are about 40 species. Prized not only for the beauty of the multiple blooms found on one stem, they are a long-lasting cut flower valued as an export commodity. Finally there is the Brassavola genus. Flowers in this genus are very fragrant, and most are white with heavily fringed lips on the edge of the blossom.

The first hybrid orchid was produced by an English botanist in 1858. Orchids grew only wild in Thailand until a Thai princeling took up the propagation of native and foreign species of orchids and breeding his own varieties approximately one hundred years ago. After he had presented various of his varieties to the king, other members of the royalty took up orchids as a hobby. This hobby spread to the common people, and has now evolved into a multi-billion Baht industry.

Thailand has become world-famous as an exporter of orchids, both in the form of cut flowers and of breeding culture. Thai botanists have managed to reproduce such prized, rare orchids as the pure white orchid, of which only six specimens have been found in the wild, in the laboratory and rearing house. Export of forest-gathered plants of this species, and other rare varieties ,would be impossible as they are on the Endangered Species List. But export of certified artificially-bred culture can allow orchid fanciers throughout the world to rear and enjoy rare specimens in their own greenhouses and homes.

Northern Thailand has become an important centre of orchid cultivation. While temperate climate fanciers must rear orchids in heated greenhouses, orchid growers in Chiangmai are able to do so in the open due to Chiangmai's favourable climate. A number of orchid nurseries have sprung up in Chiangmai, some being located in Mae Rim along the Mae Rim-Samoeng road and others are located to the south of Chiangmai on the road to Jom Thong and Mae Sariang. Many of these operate both as commercial orchid breeding and rearing farms and as tourist attractions.

Visitors to Chiangmai enjoy viewing orchids at these facilities during 2 specific seasons. The lesser blooming season is in August in the middle of the Thai rainy season. But the orchid's ability to store water means that January is the major blooming season throughout Thailand. Visitors to orchid farms around Chiangmai will be treated to a special display of the incredible variety of colour and beauty of this hardy yet visually alluring flower.

Orchid Hybridization

Although orchid hybridization has been carried out for more than 130 years, many breeding programmes have lacked continuity or rigorous organization. The orchid breeding programme at the Singapore Botanical Garden in Singapore was founded by Professor Eric Holttum in 1928 and has been in operation ever since. It is an excellent example of a scientific breeding programme which has produced an astonishing range of orchid hybrids used for landscaping, commercial cut-flower production, and home decoration.

Readers who are orchid growers may wonder why the hybrid plants that produce beautiful blooms for your enjoyment never seem to produce seeds. This is because the hybrid plant has been artificially pollinated and not by the insect which is the orchid's specific pollinator in its natural habitat. Artificial pollination allows the plant breeder to ensure that chosen pollen from one parent plant comes into contact with the female portion of the other intended parent in the cross. Although in theory it sounds quite simple , the production of a hybrid variety require a great deal of work, time, and luck to succeed.

  • Step 1. Pollen is taken from the male parent and placed on the stigma, the receptive female organ, of the selected female parent.
  • Step 2. Once fertilization has occurred, it may take from a month to over a year for the seed pod to mature. When mature, the seeds are harvested and taken for germination.
  • Step 3. The harvested seeds are geminated on a sterile sucrose growth medium as soon as possible, to ensure they do not lose their germination ability. Even under ideal conditions the seeds can take between a few days to a few months to germinate. The progress of germination is recorded to isolate those seedlings with the best vigour for further propagation.
  • Step 4. The orchid seedlings are removed from the germination flasks and potted in a carefully balanced potting soil that is as similar to their natural environment as possible. As the plants mature they are transplanted to increasingly larger pots.
  • Step 5. It may take years for a hybrid orchid to flower, and only then can the breeder's success be assessed. A hybrid cross will give rise to different flowers. Again, each must be carefully examined and recorded to determine the most suitable ones for further propagation.
  • Step 6. Once a hybrid cross is considered desirable for propagation, it is multiplied using a technique called tissue culture. The growing point, or meristem, of a new shoot is removed and in a special culture medium in a flask. The culturing flasks are agitated on a mechanical shaking tray which causes the cells to divide quickly. Many small growths appear after a few months, each of which develops into a tiny orchid plant.

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