Monday, March 30, 2009

Guess the Hybrid - for my forum friends

One of the internet forums that I dip into once in awhile, alright, in truth every day, has a periodic topic called 'Guess the Hybrid'. Usually, the plant is an un-named hybrid, sometimes a named hybrid of unusual form. These little guessing games are interesting as they challenge people to think. They also help us to refine our knowledge, especially of heritable characters.

A couple of side issues that have come up in the past couple of months have been the quality of Cymbidiums in Australia and the quality of the pictures of them. There are few orchid magazines in Australia compared to America. Inevitably, space is limited in these magazines and only a few pictures can appear. By a few I mean less than 50 in the two big orchid journals and less than 25 or even 10 in the smaller ones.

Many of the people in the various orchid societies are keen growers of orchids. The demographic is generally retired people. Their abilities with a camera? Well, it is understandable that some people would be critical of their photographs. For the most part the photos are mug shots or pictures of the whole plant. The mug shots look like the mug shots of famous people taken after a big night on the town. The flowers look a little past their best. Even the photographer was obviously having a bad night, lacking the ability to focus properly. Many of the pictures are compositionally challenged, a little off centre or with the flower position at funny angles. Almost inevitably a flash is used that does horrible things to the colours and makes the 'portraits' look harsh and washed out.

Many orchid societies around the world employ professional photographers to take pictures of the awarded plants. Smaller clubs and less well-off clubs have to get Ethel, Harry, Violet or Richard or any other person hanging around with a camera to quickly snap the picture. In the age of the digital camera, everyone things they are a photographer. Few if any of them are in any way professional, and even fewer have actually taken a class in photography. Some of these would be photographers have not even read the manual and don't know what half the buttons on the camera are for.

Complicating matters is that the people who do own special or very high quality Cymbidiums would not even think of exhibiting them in public. Several good reasons are given by various people for not displaying their best plants in public. First and foremost is that when plants are exhibited at a show, ever man and his brother wants to touch the plants, photograph them or worse yet steal them. Many do the former two, occasionally some do the later. Part of this 'touching' involves the removal of pollen to be used in breeding programs. The best plants are the best breeders, for the most part, and no breeder in their right mind would want to give away their precious pollen to be used in someones breeding program. I remember exhibiting a plant of Arachnorchis (Caladenia) rosella in the mid-1980's. Within seconds of putting the plant on display, all of the pollen was taken. Secondly, you never know who's plant may be virused. This non-lethal but severely disfiguring disease is not something any high quality grower would want in their collection.

One of the commentators on the forum remarked 'Why are Australian Cymbidiums so Ugly?'. I must admit, that at the time my mood was not the best and my reaction was uncharacteristically grumpy. Going back and reading the post now, it was remarkably terse, lackied humour and used the word 'unfair' more times than was absolutely neccesary. I still feel that the commentators comments were unjustified but looking at the magazine he was referring to he/she would get the impression that Cymbidiums in Australia were 'Ugly'.

Truth be told, there are good-looking Cymbidiums in Australia. Tastes may vary from those in the USA or even Europe, England or Japan but they are pretty none-the-less. Indeed, Australia has at times 'Punched above it's weight' in Cymbidium breeding. It seems as though we are going through a light patch at the moment. I used the term 'It seems' advisedly. There are many interesting and novel hybrids originating in Australia that are not shared with the public, especially with those in the USA, Holland, Japan and even Australia. The history of people taking the best of Australia's breeding and propogating thousands of plants through meristemming is reknown. These proliferators, as they are known in the trade, are a scourge, making handsome profits by picking the eyes out of legitimate breeding programs.

For the benefit of our forum members, I offer up the plant below. Hopefully, the picture is of sufficient quality to judge the quality of the flower. Unlike some of the 'guessing games' posted on the forum, there is no prize with this game. The 'winner' walks away with a warm inner glow of being the first to guess the plant by using their oversized brains filled with hundreds if not thousands of mental picture of plants they have seen.

I would encourage you to post a comment about this plant. It is easy to do. Just below the picture is an option to post a comment. You can be totally anonymous if you would like. BTW, if you click on the picture it will bring it up to a larger size.

Cymbidium William Weaver

You will see that a name has now appeared on the photo of the mystery plant. This is a lovely plant bred by Andy Easton. The person who guessed the name correctly was Ha Bui my generous and kind pen friend who I will meet face-to-face one day! The incorrect guesses were very interesting and even had me doubting the labels on my plant! Thankfully, All was well, with Andy confirming and even congratulating the winner before I had a chance to.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Cymbidium Koh-hou

One of my modest goals in life is to collect together all of the species and primary hybrids of the genus Cymbidium. Before you go all crazy on me, there are only about 50 species of Cymbidium. That means if I grow one plant of each and all of the possible combinations of the species I would still only have a collection of 2,500 plants! Easy really. Well, not so easy actually.

The first thing is to get hold of all the species. There are a handfull of species that are readily available locally, mainly the big showy plants like Cymbidium tracyanum, C. hookerianum, C. insigne, C. floribundum, and C. lowianum. Without too much trouble you can even get hold of C. iridioides, C. erythraeum, C. elegans, C. eburneum, C. mastersii C. lancifolium, dayanum and C. cochleare. Cymbidium sanderae is relatively easily obtained though some do not consider it a true species. The same is the case for C. suavissimum. Several years ago a few plants of the very rare C. whitea came onto the market and sold for nearly $200. Now, seedlings of this species are appearing everywhere for $8. Damn, I should have waited.

The more tropical species are also fairly easy to obtain. Cymbidium findleysonianum, bicolor, aloifolium and atropurpureum are widely available in Melbourne but there seems to be little interest in them as they need a greenhouse in winter, most are larger plants and they have relatively small flowers when compared to the other species. They tend to not flower all that well in the southern latitudes and the leaves tend to spot with fungus in the cool damp period in winter.

The dwarf, broad-leaved species C. devonianum is readily available but flowering sized plants fetch prices that would make your toes curl. The even smaller growing C. tigrinum is an even more expensive little bugger. This weekend at an orchid show there were 100mm (4 inch) pots going for $45.00. It is particularly rare in cultivation here in Melbourne.

The three native species, C. canaliculatum, C. madidum and C. suave are 'common as muck'. The only problem is that many of them are wild-collected plants. I recently bought a 12 growth plant of C. suave salvaged from a logging operation. It set me back all of $20. Most of these wild-collected plants are not really value for money. They do not take well to being ripped off a tree and being stuck in a pot. Most die fairly rapidly. Those that live are of dubious quality. They are average for the species but that is not what horticulture is all about. Horticulture abhores average. Horticulturalists select plants with the best qualities, be it growth habit, flower size or flower colour. The best forms are crossed and the resultant seedlings grown on. It is these seedlings that go on to do bigger and better things. Oh, they also command the highest price. A three bulb plant of a tetraploid form of the dark burgundy form of C. canaliculatum was being sold for $100 several years ago. The money couldn't get out of my pocket fast enough. It was worth every penny.

Most of the other species are either not available or not available commercially. Cymbidiun ensifolium, goeringii, and sinense occasionally sneak out for a visit on the sale benches. They must be very special plants as the prices paid for them are enormous. We have yet to see several of the species appear in our collections. We only dream about C. wenshanense, C. roseum, C. elongatum and C. aliciae.

The primary hybrids are not everyone's cup of tea. In many cases they are not an improvement of the parents. Actually, there are a few that are decidedly inferior to the parents. You wonder what the breeder was doing when they dreamt up some of these crosses. They almost certainly looked better in the breeders visions than in reality. The interesting thing is that for some people, myself included, it is not so much about producing beautiful plants. The goal in the making of primary hybrids is seeing which traits are dominant and which are recessive. A secondary goal is to see if the cross actually works. The more closely related species cross easily and produce fertile offspring. More distantly related species may not cross at all or produce sterile offspring. This last scenario does not always mean that the cross is a dead end. Don Wimber proved this by converting the sterile C. Peter Pan from 2N to 4N. Admittedly, C. Peter Pan is not a primary hybrid but it does have a species, C. ensifolium, as one parent. After the conversion from 2N to 4N, C. Peter Pan became fertile again and has been used in a long series of stunningly beautiful and fragrant hybrids.

Cymbidium Peter Pan 'Greensleeves' 4N

Two of the most delicate and in many respects interesting Cymbidium species are C. ensifolium and C. dayanum. Cymbium ensifolium is a very widespread species in the wild and has a large number of named forms ranging from pure white albinos through greens, tans, browns and reds. The base colours are some form of white, green or tan with various degrees of spotting of the darker colours. Cymbidium dayanum is a stunning crystaline white with bright red lines on the sepals and petals and a red lip with a bright yellow patch in the middle, at least in the typical form. Thre are fine forms that are pure white albinos and others that are red with burgundy striping.

A recent remake of the hybrid C Koh-hou used an albino form of C. ensifolium and the standard form of C. dayanum. The result combines the best and worst features of both plants. On the good side it is a very easy plant to grow and flowers prolifically. My larger plant is blooming for the second time this year and I fully expect it to flower at least one more time. The leaves are narrow and an extremely shiny dark green. The flowers are very near to C. dayanum in colour but 1/3 again larger. The flower spikes are upright to slightly arching like the C. ensifolium parent. The fragrance of the flowers is absolutely intoxicating. One small five inch pot with a seven-flowered spike perfumed the whole livingroom, dining room and kitchen. On the downside, the flowers are as short-lived as each of the parents, barely 3 weeks. If C. Koh-hou was a Crocus, Iris or a Rhododendron, 3 weeks would be a really long display. We have high expectations of Cymbidiums.

Sometimes a plant has beautiful flowers and an ugly plant. Likewise there are many Cymbidiums with lovely foliage and shockingly ugly flowers. Little C. Koh-hou is an absolutely ideal display plant; stunning to look at and a pleasure to the nose. It is one of the easiest of plants to grow. A specimen plant can be grown in a 6 inch pot. What it lacks in keeping qualities it more than makes up for in grace and elegance.

Cymbidium Koh-hou

Cymbidium Koh-hou