The Orchid Olympics

Breeders from 19 countries put their creations to the test at the 20th World Orchid Conference in Singapore

Some orchid species mimic nectar-producing flowers to lure bees; others emit the fetid smell of rotting meat to attract carrion flies. (JG Bryce / Gallery 339 (3))
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At the Orchid Breeding and Micropropagation Laboratory of the Singapore Botanic Gardens, Yam showed me how orchids are grown in the lab. The tiny seeds are strewn on nutrients in a sterile glass flask; after a few months, the seedlings are transferred to new flasks. Generally, they spend their first year under glass, their second year in community pots, their third in individual thumb pots. Only after four years do they begin to flower. The plants with the most favored characteristics, such as vigor, length of spray, and size, shape and color of flowers, are then cloned. A meristem, or growth tip, is clipped from the orchid and shaken in a flask. Normally a meristem produces one shoot, but “shaking the plant tissue confuses it and it will start producing many shoots,” Yam said. Growers separate the shoots to produce clones of the same hybrid.

Gone are the days when owning an orchid was a luxury. Thanks to cloning, orchids can be grown en masse, and you can buy a stem at the grocery store for $20. Orchids are the most commonly sold type of potted flowering plant in the United States, where the wholesale business reached $171 million in 2010, up 6 percent from the year before.

At the conference, a retired English professor, a cattle farmer from South Africa, a patent attorney from Singapore and an Italian fashion designer living in Bali mingled in the crowd. People discussed voluptuous bodies with slick curves, unblemished skin, flamboyant posture and perfectly curved luscious lips.

“Orchids are fascinating because they are shaped just like us—two sepals and two petals on either side,” said Motes, gesturing with his sepal-like legs and petal-like arms. “There’s a dorsal sepal at the top, a central column and a lip at the bottom that’s actually a landing pad for potential pollinators,” he went on. “This intricate structure of orchids tends to be sensual and touches something primal in us on a subliminal level.”

Another exhibitor, Haruhiko “Harry” Nagata, and his family hand-carried 275 orchid plants and 26 cut flowers from Japan to Singapore. “I have been growing orchids for 35 years and for me breeding orchids is all about fun and anticipation—pollinating two plants with different characteristics and getting to see the first bloom after several years!” he said. Nagata’s contender for the show’s big prize was a flamboyant white orchid with an exotic purple-tinged lip, named Mikkie Nagata, after his wife. Pointing to a pink flower, he said, “This is Cattleya Jimmy Nagata, named after my son. Very, very lousy,” he joked, pointing to his son in the distance. “But the flower is OK!”

When judging commenced, more than 200 connoisseurs, most with salt-and-pepper hair and clad in loose clothes and comfortable running shoes, scrambled from one exhibit to another armed with judging sheets, measuring tapes and laser pointers. Some examined from a distance, while others sat on their haunches and lifted the leaves delicately with a pen.

“My flowers have really done well, a lot of medals and ribbons,” said Purver, the Isle of Jersey grower. “I will be disappointed if I don’t win the big prize.”

But his entry was a runner-up in the best plant category, losing to a Taiwanese competitor whose winning orchid, Cycnodes Taiwan Gold, had a rich yellow flower that resembled the shape of a swan. The Orchid Society of Papua New Guinea also won a runner-up trophy, for overall display. Wiping tears of joy, Tkatchenko said, “This is absolutely sensational. Who knew where Papua New Guinea was and now we’re up against the world’s best!”

Somali Roy is a writer based in Singapore. JG Bryce, based in Taipei, Taiwan, is working on an art project about perceptions and deceptions.


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