Sunday, December 21, 2008

Photography Lessons!

A scientist living in an 'Artists Community' has its benefits and its drawbacks. On the one hand most of the artists are of the opinion that science is the antithesis of art. Their opinion of scientists, needless to say, is not the most favourable. You can almost imagine the conversation 'We are not concerned about what the names of the plants are or how they work or even if they are rare or endangered, we are concerned with colour, interesting shapes, composition of our works and creating 'artistic' renditions of what we see. Needless to say, this is not an imaginary conversation. It has been heard many times in twenty years. On the other hand the artists have no expectation that the scientists who live in the neighbourhood would have any interest in 'Art'. This lack of expectation from the artists is good. It means that we can do what we want without them ever having to take us seriously.

Twenty years is a long time to live in a neighbourhood and not be visited by one group of people. The scientists, the people who appreciate nature for natures sake and the non-artists are regular visitors to the house. We call each other and talk about things we have seen in the forest or the latest bird to visit. The gardeners come to see the weird plants in flower and to get cuttings. I lost track years ago how many kilos of coffee have been put through the espresso machine for my friendly neighbours who drop in. Not one cup of coffee has passed the lips of an artist in this house. Not because they are not welcome but because they feel there is no need to visit someone who is not 'cool' or in the 'in crowd'. This is an interesting viewpoint that they have. These supposed free-thinking and bohemian artists might get a little bit of enlightenment if they realised what was past the threshold to my house or even in the garden!

The house that I live in is a former artists gallery. Famous Australian artists exhibited their work here twenty years ago. There are some odd spaces in the house that are not really usable; too wide to be a hallway, too narrow to be a room. Even the living room is four times as long as it is wide.The lighting was originally gallery lighting, all halogen spot lights on swivels (now for the most part replaced. The shelves at the far end of the living room are lit. Bookshelves with lights? No, they were for displaying small objet d'art. The walls and shelves are still covered in art but art that I like, not art that the artists up here will ever get a chance to see.

Interestingly, I have always had an interest in art. In 4th grade I was designing and drawing cartoons for a anti-littering campaign. This led on to cartoons figures that were not associated with moral rectitude. When my interest in plants developed so did my interest in botanical art. This led to classes in Bot Art using water colours, pen and ink, pencil and charcoal and even wood block printing. I had the technical skill but not the eye for composition. My shading was beautiful and perspective wonderful but they all looked exactly like they did when they were lying shriveling and dying on the drawing table.

I tried photography. My first camera was an Olympus OM1. A fantastic camera with an incompetant photographer. Very occasionally the stars would come together and a stunner would stare back at me from the freshly printed photograph I actually took. Unfortunately, a strike rate of 1 in 500 - 1000 is not all that good. I persisted but didn't improve. Have you heard the story about men? They will play with a gadget but never read the manual? That was me. To be fair, I did read the manual but it was beyond me. I know, why admit incompetance when you can blame the equiptment.

Things changed when there was a reason to take pictures. Being the slightly pedantic (read as scientific) person that I am, there was a need to keep photographic records of what I was recording in writing. The pictures were better but still looked as though they were taken for a plant catalogue. That was until Dr. Sue came along. Sue is actually a university lecturer in biomedical sciences but she should have been a professional photographer. Actually, she doesn't want to be a professional photographer, hers is purely a pursuit of pleasure through the use of photography. Thankfully, we are good friends so when she said my photos were, well, S__t, I didn't take it bad at all. She wasn't that harsh but you would be well aware what it is like to be told something you think is wonderful is not. It hurts even worse when it comes from someone you respect.

Solution to this sorry and depressing situation? Chuck the camera in the river and never take another photograph? Sounded a good idea but the cost of the camera stopped me from doing that. Sell the camera? No, it might still be useful and it was certainly a better quality camera than the one used for 'happy snaps'. The only solution was to give up the male ego thing and get lessons. And yes, lessons from a women. Thankfully, that woman was Sue. She has been training me for about 6 months now. It takes me awhile and sometimes I slip back but my 'teacher' can't get away from me. Her office is next to mine and we have an agreement that I provide the plants for her pictures.

Until now most of my photos have been of orchids or the odd critter in the garden. That was until friday. There was an oxalis sitting on my desk from a picture taking session for a previous blog. I was a little late getting home from work and the sun was low in the sky, shining through the office window. In the few days that the Oxalis had been sitting on the desk it had turned its leaves to the window. Now the sun was shining through the tops of the leaves and all I could see was the bottom side of the leaves. The tops of the leaves were interesting but the bottoms were absolutely fascinating. It jumped out at me as the most startling colour combination. I wasn't hungry for dinner so I took a picture. Then a few more. Twenty-seven photos later there were several that were passable. Download, Crop adjust white balance and hey presto! The picture below.

Oxalis triangularis

The next day after watering the greenhouse I noticed that the seed heads had burst on a pelargonium species just inside the door. What struck me was the near perfect symmetry of the corkscrew like awns with the furry little pointed seeds all poking out. I carefully lifted it into a spot out of the wind with a dark background and after only 6 pics and a little cropping came up with this.

Pelargonium hirtum

The end of the story? My teacher liked the photos and even used the word gorgeous. It helped that purples are her favourite colours. She also likes hairy things. Maybe that is why she has me as a friend.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Restrepia elegans

You know you have an obsession when you need to have something around you all of the time. My home is a bit of a botanical ark. The garden beds are filled with collections of various genera of plants the most prominent of which is the genus Pelargonium. The greenhouses and shadehouses protect my collection of Cymbidiums. Even my home office, kitchen and dining room have the odd potted plant on the window sills.

Most of the plants that make it to the house are reminders of family or friends. These permanent house guests occasionally have to share space with a flowering Cymbidium that fleetingly comes for a visit and like all good house guests leaves after a few days. There are not all that many permanent members of the indoor flora but each has a special meaning.

In the corner of the dining room there is one of those old-time brass hanging baskets strung up by long brass chains. The 'basket' contains a 15cm black plastic pot with Zebrina pendula, the beautiful wine red, silver and green Wandering Jew as it was known then I was growing up. This reminds me of my mother. She had jars filled with cuttings of Zebrina that lined a narrow shelf that ran the length of the double ceramic sink that itself ran the length of the windows.

Above my sink is a pot of Oxalis triangularis, the two-toned purple leaved form. My favourite Aunt, Aunt Doris, grew a plant of this in an antique ceramic pot on a small table covered in a doily at the top of the stairs to the upstairs bedrooms. Even in the darkest days of winter it provided a stark contrast to the bleak trees and snow on the other side of the glass. Here was this apparently delicate little plant with bright perky leaves of the most intense colour topped with the most delicate pink flowers on long stalks. I always wondered how it survived. Now that mine has been alive in the same place for at least the past 19 years with only being repotted twice in that time I am starting to understand.

Oxalis triangularis

On my home office desk there is a dwarf Japanese cultivar of Raphis excelsa, the Lady Palm. It is growing in a specially designed and handcrafted pot made by a friend. Some reminders remain private.

My work office desk and windows were a bit bare. The walls have a couple of drawings of some of my special plants. I really wanted something living. The office air is very dry and most plants last a couple of days before showing stress. My approach was a bit lateral. When I was a young man terrariums were all the rage. There were hundreds of designs including plain old jars to aquariums to specially designed enormous glass vessels with narrow necks and large bulbous bases. They even sold special terrarium tools to plant these long-necked bottles. Of course I had a set.

One day we were cleaning up the marine lab making space for one of the new students. We opened one of the locked cabinets and inside was the most amazing arrays of aquariums, all with matching glass lids. I am a sucker for a well built anything! These aquariums were obviously lovingly made. One particular size took my fancy, they were about 30cm long, 20cm high and about 15cm deep. Four end-to-end would fit comfortably on each of my office window sills. I have three windows in my office! The temperatures in my office do not fall below 15C at night and do not go above 25C during the day, every day of the year! Permanent tropics.

The aquariums on the south-facing window I filled with various species of Jewel Orchids; Anoectochilus, Ludisia, Goodyera, Macodes. They look great all snuggled up in live sphagnum moss with their lids on. Once a year I have to push the glass across to leave a small gap for the flower spikes to poke through. After they flower the spikes are cut off and the lids put back into place. Life is peaceful again.

On the windowsills that face east I have a collection of little Masdevallias, Restrepia and a few of the other miniature South American Pleurithallids. In the past few weeks one particular little sweetie has been blooming its head off. This is the extremely delicate and very refined little orchid, Restrepia elegans. The whole plant is all of maybe 6-7 cm tall. The flower is huge for the size of the plant being almost 2 cm long along the axis of the fused lateral sepals. The dorsal sepal and petals are just about as long but quickly taper into long narrow threads each topped with a little knob that emits pheromones to attract the pollinator. It literally smells like female wasps at least to a male wasp. The males must be pretty blind (aren't most males when they are pursuing a sexual reward?).

This plant provided me with another lesson from my photography teacher. How to take a picture of such a tiny plant and flower and to get it looking good. I think the second shot is much better. It is hard to get good depth of field when you are working with such tiny subjects. These little fellas will go on flowering for months so there will be plenty of opportunity to keep trying to get a good shot. In the meantime, when the boredom of some tasks at work start to get to me or some person is being, well, you know, difficult, I can always look to the windowsill and see something of beauty that asks nothing of me but provides me with so much.

Restrepia elegans

Restrepia elegans

Thursday, December 11, 2008

God Only Knows and Progeny

One of the my students at school is working on the taxonomy of native Tobacco (Nicotiana sp) in South-Eastern Australia. In 1910 it was generally assumed there where two species; a white flowered one that was widespread and abundant and a small greenish/yellow flowered species that was restricted to the drier inland areas. By the 1950's the white flowered species was split into 3; a hairy inland form, a hairy coastal form and a widespread hairless form. Not being content to leave it at this, a few people in the 1980's decided that there was another 'species' lurking around. Why did they think this? It did not behave itself and conform to the 4 described species. Plants are supposed to behave the way humans want them to!

Along comes our student, looking for a project to carry out. At the same time a student at another university was also looking for a project to do. As happens occasionally, both of them decided to work on the same group of plants. You could almost see the daggers being drawn as they planned how to get rid of each other and claim the project all for themselves. Thankfully, another solution soon became apparent. They worked together. One took the genetic side of the project and the other the morphological and ecological side. A pretty good split both were happy with.

Although the results are only preliminary they are fascinating none-the-less! Genetically, the plants are all more or less identical. All the bands on the gels light up in all the same places. Several different methods have been used and all show the same thing. Morphologically and ecologically, there are 5 distinct entities. Each has its own hair type and degree of hairiness. Each grows on a different geology and soil type. Statistical analysis of all of the morphological and ecological traits clearly shows there are 5 distinct entities with a greater than 95 percent accuracy. How could this be? What is going on here?

All life has genes. Genes are what control, amongst other things, what an organism looks like and how it behaves. But is it simply genes that dictate these things? Genetically, humans (Homo sapiens) are more or less identical and belong to the same species. Domestic dogs (Canis lupus familiaris) are all dogs, and cats (Felis domesticus) are all cats. There is another little thing called gene expression. The environment and a range of other factors can get a gene to either turn on or turn off. As these genes turn on it could dictate hairy or not hairy, or drought tolerant or not drought tolerant. Could this be going on with the Tobacco species in Australia?

I love to talk about inheritance in Cymbidiums. One of my local friends and I spend hours every other week or so pouring over plants looking at how various parents are expressed in the progeny. Between the two of us we grow a shipload of seedlings . As you probably guessed from previous posts there can be a great deal of variation in seedlings of the same cross. Some parents have strong influence, others are barely detectable in the offspring. What causes this variation? They all have the same parents and they all came from the same seed capsule? In the case of Cymbidium hybrids it may simply the various genes combining in different ways but could gene expression play a role as well?

As you will be familiar, I belong to a forum on the internet that deals only with plants in the genus Cymbidium. By internet standards this forum does not contain a large group of people but they are all as nutty as I am about Cymbidiums. We talk about lots of things, generally related to Cymbidium although every now and again we stray off the main topic! Occasionally there is a discussion on the Cymbidium forum that is enlightening and sparks the interest of a wide range of forum members. My last post, on Cymbidium God Only Knows, was in response to a discussion on the forum. The link in that post took you to a couple of pictures of C. God Only Knows 'Geyserland' taken by one of the forum members names Ha Bui. I have never met Ha Bui but from discussion on the net I like him and we have a friendship of sorts. More like pen pals. I am sure we would get along well if we were ever to meet.

My habit of posting 'progeny' blogs has sparked a bit of interest and people are encouraging me to carry on with it. To further this cause, Ha Bui thought it would be great if I posted a blog on Cymbidium God Only Knows (GOK for short) and its progeny. He would supply the photos and I would assemble it and put some words to it. I am not sure where he lives but he is obviously sound asleep while I am at work. After a little to and fro, the pictures all arrived safe and well. Unfortunately they arrived just as I was heading to work this morning. So here I am at 10:30 at night finishing off a joint project between Ha Bui and me. I hope you like it!

Thanks for the photos Ha. I hope you enjoy what has been done with them.

Cymbidium God Only Knows 2N
(photo by Chuckie)

Cymbidium God Only Knows 'Geyserland'
(photo by Ha Bui)

Cymbidium God Only Knows 'Geyserland'
(photo by Ha Bui)

Cymbidium God Only Knows 'Geyserland' X C. Yowie Flame
(photo by Ha Bui)

Cymbidium God Only Knows 'Geyserland' X C. Paul Robeson
(photo by Ha Bui)

Cymbidium God Only Knows 'Geyserland' X C. Paul Robeson
(photo by Ha Bui)

Cymbidium God Only Knows 'Geyserland' X C. Paul Robeson
(photo by Ha Bui)

Cymbidium God Only Knows 'Geyserland' X C. Paul Robeson
(photo by Ha Bui)

Cymbidium Paul Robeson (Left)
Cymbidium God Only Knows 'Geyserland' X C. Paul Robeson (Right)
(photo by Ha Bui)

Cymbidium God Only Knows 'Geyserland' X C. Hazel Fay
(photo by Ha Bui)

Cymbidium God Only Knows 'Geyserland' X C. Mizuha Okoda
(photo by Paula)

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Cymbidium God Only Knows

Cymbidium God Only Knows 2N
(hookerianum used as the pod parent)

Friends on the web have been talking about this pretty little primary Cymbidium hybrid that goes under the name God Only Knows. Maybe one of them can inform me how it got this highly unusual name. It is an interesting hybrid because it is made between two quite distantly related plants within the genus. The one parent is Cymbidium floribundum (formerly known as C. pumilum) which is a small plant, rarely over 20 cm tall with flowers about 2 cm or slightly more across. The other parent is Cymbidium hookerianum (formerly known as C. grandiflorum) which, by contrast, is a large plant, upwards of 1 m tall with flowers 10 cm or more across. It is not unusual for crosses of such disparate species to not produce offspring and when they do, the young 'uns can be sterile or close to it.

Something went terribly right with this cross which is proving to be a very good parent in its own right. First of all, The taxonomists may have it all wrong, the plants may be more closely related than originally thought. The other thing is that breeders have figured out that if you double the chromosome count of the parents or the offspring, fertility can be restored.

When breeding plants so disparate in size, it is normal practice to use the larger plant/flower as the male (pollen parent) and the smaller as the female (pod parent). It is more probable that the pollen tubes from the larger will reach the ovaries of the smaller. Pollen tubes in most cases have a limited ability to increase in length. If pollen from the smaller flower was used on the larger flower it is highly likely that the pollen tubes will not elongate sufficiently to reach the ovaries. Just to contradict myself sometimes mating smaller flowers on to larger flowers does work!

Most of the Cymbidium God Only Knows appear to have been made with C. floribundum (pumilum) as the pod parent. This is evidenced by the general appearance of the offspring that more closely resemble the size and appearance of C. floribundum. Several years ago a friend of mine did the cross in the reverse order, using C. hookerianum (grandiflorum) as the pollen parent. Interestingly, while you can still clearly see C. floribundum in the offspring, the C. hookerianum parent is more strongly expressed. Just to confuse things even more, he used a green form of C. floribundum so as not to get a brownish flower. Compare this form of God Only Knows with my form. You will need to go to message 7 and open the jpg's.

Now the comparison between my plant and the breeders plant is not all that fair. My form has the normal ploidy level or 2N. The form pictured on the Cymbidium Forum has double the number of chromosomes or 4N. Most would find the breeders plant more attractive. Well, maybe not me as I tend to like the more spidery flowers. There has been no reports about the fragrance of the one pictured on the forum but mine has a beautiful fragrance. As you can see from the picture above, mine has spots instead of solid patches of colour and is much greener. Pretty isn't it?

The best part of this cross, in any of its forms, is that it is particularly cold tolerant, it will happily grow and flower profusely in a 15 cm pot and the flowers will last a good month in the middle of winter! It overcomes some of the shortcoming of both parents and emphasizes the strengths. Cymbidium floribundum flowers are short-lived and so-so in colour in most of its forms. It is however a superb grower, forms a specimen plant in no time at all and will flower regularly even after repotting or division the previous season. Cymbidium hookerianum on the other hand has the most stupendous large green fragrant flowers that last for months. Unfortunately, it is a large plant, hard to flower and tends to drop its flower buds if conditions are not just right.

Cymbidium God Only Knows is a very reliable and tough little hybrid that should be more popular. It forms specimen plants easily, flowers profusely and is fragrant and attractive. Even the leaves are a pleasant sight on a well grown plant. In the words of E.A. Bowles this plant 'Pays its rent'. Well, he was actually refering to Cyclamen hederifolium but it could equally apply to this plant.

There is a little post script to add to this blog. My friend Cliff from Gympie informed me of the source of the name God Only Knows! He said in a post 'This plant got it's name when Andy was given a flask of it in New Zealand by a hobbist grower who made the cross with the comment "God Only Knows what will come out of it!"'. Seems pretty appropriate considering the parents!

Apparently there is a post script to the post script! The original cross was made by Grant Bayley and a flask of it was traded with Andy Easton for some Cymbidium plants. The plant was later registered by Norbert Gomes mistaking Geyserland as the originator of the cross. Apparently, Norbert Gomes named the plant after the Beach Boys song "God Only Knows" and not because he was unsure of the parentage. It is amazing how fast the story can be corrected when you put things on the net, and sometime by the people actually involved. Thanks Andy!

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Cymbidium insigne subsp. insigne for Andy!

Cymbidium insigne 'Alice'

In a recent posting on an international forum, one of the worlds if not the worlds best hybridizers of orchids made a very bold statement. This is a part of his post.

‘I stand by my long-held position that about 50% of the Cymbidium species are worthless for hybridizing and just space wasters in a collection. They are as insignificant as the species fanatics who grow them in most cases. I would sooner have five different forms of C. insigne than 500 of the minor species in any of their color forms.’

Now I could have been offended by such a statement as over half of my orchid collection is composed of species Cymbidiums. It is interesting though. My first encounter with the person from which the above quote emanated was in England nearly 30 years ago. It is amazing how knowing the particular characteristics of a person for such a long time tempers reactions and can even cause a bit of mirth.

In July 1980 my parents saw me off at Philadelphia International Airport. My poor Mother was doing her best to hold back her tears, my Father thankful that he was finally rid of another of his 7 children, four down – three to go. In the words of John Schumann from the Australian folk group Redgum ‘I was only 19’ (a slight underestimation but I had to use the quote). The thoughts going through my mind were torn, ecstatic at the thought of starting a new adventure and grieving as this meant that I would not see my family for three years.

This new adventure was the opportunity to go to England to pursue the non-human love of my life, orchids. You see, the year before I had applied for the Eric Young Orchid Scholarship at the Royal Horticultural Society at Wisley (Woking, Surrey, England GU23 6QB). The address was burned into my mind. The blue airmail letter offering me the scholarship was tucked neatly and tightly in my carry bag. It was the physical reminder of my destination as I was desperately trying to let go of my physical attachments in America. I cried half way across the Atlantic. I stopped after that because it was obvious that the plane was not going to turn around.

The day I arrived it was cold and gloomy, little did I realise that this was normal weather in my new home. On descent from 38,000 feet we passed through 4 distinct layers of clouds, the lowest only several hundred metres from the ground and reaching almost right to the land surface. Thankfully, it thinned a little bit just before we touched down so the passengers and the pilot could see the tarmac. I was met at the airport by the driver from the RHS Garden and taken to temporary accommodation until my flat was ready. The lady of the house showed me to my room and asked if I would like breakfast. Being the polite American (yeah, yeah they do exist), the invitation was accepted. After a quick freshen-up breakfast was served up in the kitchen. Maggie said she had prepared a traditional English breakfast; Fried eggs, fried bacon, fried bread and weak milky tea. One look at it and my stomach wanted to void its contents. We never had fried food when we were growing up and you never had milk in tea!!! I ate it.

A whole two days after arriving and after being shown around the gardens and my new workplace I was whisked off to the RHS Halls at Vincent Square to steward the RHS Orchid Committee. My role was to record the names of the plants brought in for judging on cards, see if there were drawings of previous award winners related to the plant and physically walk the plant around to each of the Judges. The judges would then poke and prod the flowers and made affirmative or negative grunting noises. After this initial pass around of some persons carefully grown plant, the committee would do one of several things; dismiss the plant, call for a second look or discuss/argue its merits or otherwise.

The judges were, at least to me at the time, very intimidating. The Chairman was Maurice Mason, a hulking bulldog of a man who obviously intimidated the other judges as well as the steward. He clearly had a sharp intellect and vast knowledge of plants. He was always the first to suggest dismissal of the plant. Dr. Geoffrey Hercklots was my favourite judge. Dr. Hercklots was a slightly built, quiet and a very thoughtful man. Being the taxonomist of the group he would confirm the identity of the plant if there were doubts. He was always very generous to me and had no trouble forgiving my mistakes. I recognized Dr. Hercklots immediately as there was a picture of him examining a Phalaenopsis in the April 1971 edition of National Geographic. The article in National Geographic, entitled ‘The Exquisite Orchids’ is what really kicked along my interest in orchids. Every word and picture of that article is burned into my memory even to this day.

There were a gaggle of other judges that would come more or less regularly. Marcel Le Couffe, Joyce Stewart, Ray Bilton, Brian and Wilma Ritterhausen and Keith Andrews just to name a few. It wasn’t until the following spring, at one of the big flower shows that the originator of the quote in the first paragraph sailed into view. Periodically there were eminent persons from other countries. At this spring show it was Andy Easton from New Zealand. From the minute he walked into the room you knew he commanded respect; the stance, the swagger, the ‘take charge’ attitude. Here was this handsome younger man with a great tan and a voice that would make an American sound like they were whispering and a laugh to match. This man was such a contrast to the others in the room. The much older, staid, porcelain-skinned, English judge’s seemed to demure to this man and hang on his every word, even though you didn’t really have to listen to be able to hear. I must admit it was great to have someone in the room who was not 3-4 times my age!

One of the memories of this meeting was a plant that I exhibited, Cymbidium Caroll (Alexanderi x eburneum). It is like a very large and shapelier C. eburneum. It was breed in 1927 but had been ‘lost’ to cultivation until I located a plant in the collection of the RHS Garden Wisley. Half of the plant went home with Keith Andrews. I have always wondered what happened to it. I have read that additional plants have turned up in Japan. Could this have come from the plant at Wisley?

Being a steward of the RHS Orchid Committee has certain benefits. Besides being exposed to the luminaries of the field and some of the best plants in existence, I had access to all the past records of the committee. This included a hand drawn painting of each of the award winning plants. These were stored in cabinets in the judging rooms. Each month I would get to go through them to pull out images of past winners to compare them with the present offerings. Many times I would go up a couple of hours early so that I could just look through the collection.

One of the plants that appeared repeatedly in the drawings was Cymbidium insigne. At least eight different cultivars of this species had been awarded between 1907 and 1931. This is an impressive record for a species. Below is a list of those early awards.

FCC 1907 ‘Glebelands’

FCC 1908 ‘Splendens’

FCC 1908 ’Superbum’

AM 1917 ’Album’

AM 1923 f. rhodochilum

AM 1923 ‘Saint Andre’

AM 1928 ‘Mrs Carl Holmes’

FCC 1931 ‘Bieri’

Interestingly, some of these cultivars still exist in cultivation! There are undoubtedly additional awarded plants, but these were only the ones conferred by the RHS Orchid Committee in the early years.

You will know by now that it is my penchant to seek out the more ‘interesting’ plants, be they species, primary hybrids or what are affectionately known as ‘Vintage’ hybrids. Now I know that Andy has said that he would happily have a collection of five C. insigne cultivars in preference to a collection of 500 various forms of the other species. For his sake and for anyone else that is interested, I have photographed seven forms of C. insigne subsp. insigne, a small portion of the numerous forms that I presently grow. At some later date I will include the others, including various forms of C. insigne subsp. siedenfadenii, a more recently described subsp. from Thailand.

Cymbidium insigne 'Album' AM/RHS

Cymbidium insigne 'Snow White'
(a true albino)

Cymbidium insigne 'Alba' X 'Album'

Cymbidium insigne (cooperi) 'Plush'

Cymbidium insigne 'Julian'

Cymbidium insigne 'Atlantis'

Cymbidium insigne 'Pink Sands'

Cymbidium insigne 'Rosa'

Friday, November 7, 2008

Cymbidium Chiisana 'Geisha Girl'

Several years ago a friend and I went to a Cymbidium show at Ararat. Ararat is an old town in western Victoria near to the famous Grampians Range. We decided to make a weekend of it as this very pretty little town is about 3 hours drive from where I live. There is nothing worse than arriving at any orchid show more than 1/2 an hour after opening. Get there late and you will totally miss out on the sales bench!

The sales bench at this particular show was, how to say this politely, not all that interesting. My taste ranges into the interesting and unconventional. So many of the plants for sale were 'showbench quality', code for big, round and boring. One of the nurseries was an outfit from New Zealand. Nearly all of the table of this seller was covered in flasks of seedlings with just a small pile of bare root divisions of plants in plastic bags.

I rummaged through the plastic bags and found some very interesting plants. There was a very dark form of Cymbidium Cricket, a primary hybrid between C. devonianum and C. madidum. Cymbidium madidum is a large rainforest species and an Australian native species. There is a picture of C. Cricket in a previous post. In another bag was a plant with the name C. Chiisana 'Geisha Girl' . It was not in flower but owing to the strange mix of Chinese and Japanese names I thought it might be interesting.

Like you do, I grabbed both bags of C. Cricket and the only bag of C. Chiisana. After sorting through the flasks and putting a few aside, it came time to pay. As the money was flying out of my coffers the question inevitably was put to the stall holder 'So what is C. Chiisana?'. He said 'hold on a minute' and turned to the person you should always ask when you don't know something, the wife. 'Is that flower of 'Geisha Girl' still around?' She reached into the rubbish box under the bench, pulled out a scrunched-up plastic bag and after a bit of todo dug out a shrivelled and crushed flower. 'Aw Sh_t, another little brown thing' went through my mind but the money had already departed my possession. I put on my best smile and exclaimed that it looked a very interesting little flower. It is hard to tell quality from a bit of dead plant material.

After a trip home the next day through an unseasonable snow storm, the plants were potted and put in the greenhouse. Cymbidium Cricket, being one of my favourite primary hybrids, got pride of place hanging from the rafters at the far end of the greenhouse. I wouldn't be able to miss them when they flowered the next year. And flower they did! These two C. Cricket obviously liked their new home and nearly doubled in size and flowered beautifully. The C. Chiisana was put on the benches with the other Australian native hybrids. By this time there was the need to find out what this odd plant was. Turns out it was registered in 1989 by a Nakoyama. A Japanese name for a hybridizer is always a good sign that there might be something interesting ahead.

Cymbidium Chiisana turns out to be a hybrid between a small reddish hybrid made in 1961 - Cymbidium Mimi and the Australian native species C. canaliculatum. I thought this might be interesting. I used to grow C. Mimi and although not the most spectacular Cymbidium it was free flowering and had a nice colour. If they used C. canaliculatum 'Sparksii' as the other parent, the progeny would be nice little compact, highly floriforous reds that may be a bit difficult to grow and possibly bloom in the cooler climes of Melbourne. You would think a hybridizer would use a red with a red, wouldn't you?

Well, all seemed to be going along well until there was the need to go to a conference overseas. My partner and I were talking one day on the phone and the question was asked 'was there anything sitting on that upturned pot on the end bench in the upper greenhouse?'. My heart sunk. I kept my specimen plant of a particularly fine form of C. eburneum on that pot to ensure that it got a bit of extra air movement. Nothing more was said until I got home a couple of weeks later. I went for a quick look around the collection to see how the 'Children' had gone while I was away. I started to feel sick the more I looked. Oh no, this couldn't have happened.

It did happen. For the third time since living at my present address I had been robbed. None of the valuables from the house, tv and computer still there, paintings still on the walls. This was much worse. Everywhere I looked there were holes on the benches where plants used to grow. Out came the inventory and down the benches I went recording the babies that were still there. The special C. eburneum was gone. The albino's were gone. The C. insigne were all gone. Aww *@%#, all the natives were gone as well as the primaries involving natives. Cymbidium Chiisana was gone.

Thank goodness, whoever got the plants didn't go through the propagation house. Backbulbs of most of the plants that went west were in the prop house. The Police were called, a list of plants provided, estimated cost tallied. Not a good feeling. I just had to accept they were lost and gone forever. The worst feeling was that whoever stole the plants was someone I knew and someone that knew the value of the plants. They only took the best.

I won't go into how I found out where some of my plants ended up but suffice to say a few of them came back to me. My lovely 20 year old C. eburneum was scorched and shriveled beyond belief and nearly brought me to tears. Some were totally dead. Interesting, C. Chiisana was looking lush and had growths twice the size of the growths it threw under my care. I thought, oh maybe it likes it a bit drier. There had to be some knowledge gained from this whole sorry episode. Cymbidium Chiisana got hung from the rafters in the shadehouse. It loved it. The growths matured and it sat there most of the winter. As with most of the C. canaliculatum hybrids the watering gets cut right back in winter, only enough to stop them from looking like prunes.

A couple of months ago I wondered if C. Chiisana was going to bloom, as most of the other C. pumilum type hybrids were showing spikes or were already in flower. As I lifted down the basket two big fat spikes as long as my thumb were poking up from the side of the plant facing the sun. Six weeks later out the flowers came.

While the plant was still in bud I went one more time to see if there was a picture of what the flower might look like. Santa Barbra Orchid Estate (SBOE) had a pic of C. Chiisana 'Kristen'! Funnily enough this pic was only put up in mid-May of this year. My heart got a bit of a flutter. Although not spectacular C. Chiisana 'Kristen' is exactly as you would expect from a hybrid between C. Mimi and C. canaliculatum 'Sparksii'. The buds were dark so hopefully mine would be just as beautiful. My heart sunk a bit when the flowers opened. It was in fact a little browny thing just like the smashed flower I had seen at the Ararat Cymbidium Show. How disappointing. Initial observations, however, can be very misleading!!! When the flowers opened the true beauty of the plant was revealed. The C. canaliculatum used was not 'Sparksii' but a normal spotted form. The results were radically different from the SBOE C. Chiisana 'Kristen'.

Cymbidium Chiisana 'Geisha Girl', as you can see is a little ripper. The lip is so pretty, being pure sparkling white with very dark red spots and edged in maroon-red. The very edge of the lip is a pinkish red which makes the overall lip look sharper than it actually is. Just behind the tip of the callus there is a pinkish blush, clearly seen in the second picture. It contrasts very nicely with the yellow overlaid with red of the petals and sepals. It is actually hard to describe in words the complexity of the colouring of this flower. The overall impression of the flower is brownish from a distance with a clear, sharply contrasting lip. When you get up close you can really see the subtleties. I hope you like it as much as I do.

Cymbidium Chiisana 'Geisha Girl'

Cymbidium Chiisana 'Geisha Girl'

Cymbidium Chiisana 'Geisha Girl'

Cymbidium Chiisana 'Geisha Girl'

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Cymbidium lowianum primary hybrids and a couple of others

In 1974 I enrolled in horticulture at our local vocational technical school in Delaware County just west of Philadelphia in Pennsylvania. The first year of Vo-tech was spent in the inner-urban suburb of Folcroft where we studied landscape architecture and floriculture. Our teacher was a very large man named Mr. Pleasant. He was. He encouraged our nascent interest and help steer us away from the rough-heads that occupied the majority of the courses. Folcroft, then and now, can not be classified as having reached the lofty heights of lower middle class. Many of the students were put in Vocational Technical School as they were scholastically challenged. I like to think my reasons for attending were because of interest. Because of my size, awkwardness and choice of career, it was not unusual for me to get beat up by Mike Albany, the biggest, strongest, meanest kid on the bus. He called me 'Burpee' as my favourite pastime during that first year was to memorize all the plants that occurred in the Burpee Seed Catalog. My right shoulder was constantly bruised that whole first year. I hated getting on the bus at my home high school and traveling the 1/2 hour to Vo-tech and then back again.

Second and thirst year were an absolute pleasure. Instead of being bussed to the inner suburbs we were transported through the forest to Ridley Creek State Park and the old Jeffers Estate (see below). The story goes that old man Jeffers went bankrupt and the state took over his property and converted it into a state park, namely Ridley Creek State Park. The state, making every attempt to utilize the facilities, transfered the Vocational Technical horticultural course from Folcroft to the old stable house at Ridley Creek. The gardens and greenhouses would provide just the right environment for young students studying plants. For me, apart from the wonderful plant treasures, was the relief of not having to be exposed to ruffians.

As you can see from the photo below, the house was monsterous with servents quarters and a ballroom. The gardens were magnificent with a woodland garden, a formal fountain garden, several walled gardens each containing either roses, peonies, herbs or herbaceous perennials. In the woods above the house, and just conveniently out of sight, was a greenhouse complex. These greenhouses were originally used to supply flowers, potted plants and winter vegetables to the main house. As was the custom of very wealthy estate owners, there were various collections of rare or unusual plants.

The Jeffers Estate in winter. Ridley Creek State Park, Media, Pennsylvania.

The greenhouses were of the type that were build around the turn of the century or slightly earlier. The foundations were approximately 4 feet high and composed of the local mica-schist rock, the gables of wrought iron. The size of the greenhouses matched the size of the house. A main greenhouse approximately 100 feet long, 30 feet wide and 20 feet high ran north-south. At either end and running west were to smaller houses about half as big as the main greenhouse. In the center and to the east ran a small greenhouse that connected the main greenhouse to the potting shed and boiler room. To the west between the north and south greenhouses were a series of 6 foot deep cold frames lined with the same local rock as the foundations.

The south-west greenhouse was set aside primarily for cut-flower roses and winter storage of the large pots of tender shrubs and trees, as well as Azaleas and Hydrangeas forced for winter flowering. The north-west greenhouse was for cutflowers as well, predominantly Carnations, Snapdragons, Bachelors Buttons, Gypsophila, Chrysanthemums and some Cymbidiums. The northern 2/3rds of the main greenhouse was used for potted seasonal plants, Easter Lilies, Poinsettias, Chrysanthemums. The southern third of the main house was for the tropical plants. This house was fascinating with huge pots of Coffee trees, Oleanders, Eucharis, Ferns, Bananas and of course orchids. My favourite orchid was a huge plant of Schomburgkia tibicinus (now Myrmecophila tibicinus) which sent out 3-4 metre flower spikes and always came out after we had finished school. Thankfully, I lived close to the park and could easily travel down to see it in bloom through the glass.

Mr. Bigler, our teacher, recognised that I had a penchant for plants and a particular interest in orchids. Each student had a section of the greenhouse that we looked after. Thankfully, the orchid benches and the cut flower greenhouse with the Cymbidiums were allocated to me. Now most of the Cymbidiums had obviously been there a long time and were mainly the early diploid hybrids. Interestingly, Cymbidium lowianum, and several that looked remarkably like C. Pauwelsii. I remember most of them being in the yellow, brown, green range with small flowers on tall spikes and flowering from easter onwards.

The fact that most of the Cymbidiums in the Jeffers collection were C. lowianum and its hybrids is not surprising. The flowers of C. lowianum itself can last 3 months if you periodically wash the dirt and dust off the flowers and keep the slugs and bugs off. They are easy to grow and produce long arching sprays of 20-30 or more, modest sized flowers that cut well.

Boxall, a plant collector in the mid to late 1800's collected plants of the species we now know as C. lowianum in 1877 in the hills of Myanmar. It was not originally thought to be a distinct species and was given varietal status under Cymbidium iridioides (giganteum at the time). A couple of years later it was finally recognized as distinct and given the name Lowianum after the men who had contracted Boxall to collect plants for them, Messrs Low. The original form was green with brown tinges on the petals and sepals and a bright yellow and white labellum accented by a bright to dark red patch shaped like the letter V and a central pencil line of the same colour. It was in many respects similar to the plant pictured below.

Cymbidium lowianum var. lowianum

Amongst populations of the normal coloured form, albino forms occasionally occur. These have been, in the past, been given the varietal name concolor. As these rare albinos appear in populations of otherwise normal coloured forms it is not appropriate to call them varieties, a designation usually assigned to wild plants that are reproductively isolated from other forms. It is even doubtful that these albinos should even be given a cultivar name as they are not all derived from the same plant and vary considerably. Early horticulturalists recognized several distinct albino sorts and named them var. viride and var. flaveolum. The form commonly found in cultivation at the moment goes under the name 'Concolor' and is a pleasant clear green with a yellow and white lip. The bright red patches found on the labellum of the normal coloured form are, in 'Concolor' replaced with a bright yellow patch.

Cymbidium lowianum 'Concolor'

The hybrid Cymbidium Garnet was made in 1915 using a normally coloured C. lowianum var. lowianum crossed with C. sanderae (syn. C. parishii var sanderae) The first of the next three pictures shows the results of this original cross.

Cymbidium Garnet

In more recent times, Andy Easton and several other noteworthy hybridisers have been using 'superior' forms of the wild species to remake some of the early hybrids. Here are the results of more recent breeding.

Cymbidium Garnet 'Orange Glow'

'Orange Glow' has as it's parents Cymbidium lowianum var. i'ansonii, sometime recognised as a the distinct species C. i'ansonii. Variety i'ansonii differs from var. lowianum in that the base colour of the flower is yellow-brown and the V-shaped patch is orange-red.

Cymbidium Garnet 'Greenie'

The result when you use C. lowianum 'concolor' with C. sanderae is basically a flower with green sepals and petals and an essentially white lip with red patches. 'Greenie' is the 2N version of this cross. Other forms, some of them 4N, of this same cross also exist but were not in flower this weekend when I took the pictures! The 4N forms are the same colour, some clearer, but the flowers are better shaped and larger.

Cymbidium Pauwelsii was registered in 1911 and has as its parents C. lowianum and C. insigne. The range of possibilities of crossing the many forms of both of these parents has resulted in plants that range from brown through pinks to peach and yellows. Below are just a couple examples of different forms. One of the most spectacular of the recent remakes of this hybrid is the albino form of Pauwelsii called 'New Horizon'. The 4N version is a very shapely and bright yellow, rivaling some of the more complex hybrids. The two below hold their own charm with tall arching spikes and free-flowering habit.

Cymbidium Pauwelsii 2N

Cymbidium Pauwelsii 4N

Both of the above forms of C. Pauwelsii are the result of crossing a C. lowianum 'Concolor' with a pink form of C. insigne. Both came from the same cross and seed pod but responded differently to the chemical used to convert them from diploid to tetraploid. The first one did not respond but the second did. Increasing the ploidy levels of plants can increase the size and intensify the the colours. This is exemplified in the two plants above.

If we change the variety of C. lowianum used in C. Pauwelsii to var. i'ansonii the result is very different. This cross was originally registered in 1919 when var. i'ansonii was still recognised as a species. The name given to C. i'ansonii with C. insigne is C. Ceres. The two forms below came from two separate crossings using different forms of C. insigne.

Cymbidium Ceres 2N

Cymbidium Ceres 'Florence Mausteller' 4N

When C. lowianum was crossed with C. tigrinum (a miniature species) the result was the delightfully small but remarkably perky C. lowgrinum. Cymbidium tigrinum brings down the size of the hybrid plant but also reduces the flower count. More recent introductions of more robust forms of C. tigrinum have overcome the massive reduction in flower count of the offspring bringing it back up to about 10-12 for modern C. Lowgrinum.

Cymbidium Lowgrinum 'Francis'

Probably one of the most famous of the primary hybrids of C. lowianum is the very first Cymbidium hybrid ever made - C. Eburneo-lowianum. This hybrid took the multi flowered arching green C. lowianum and crossed it with the single flowered, fragrant, white-flowered C. eburneum. The offspring were variable but basically resembled the C. lowianum parent for shape, but changed the flower colour to a dirty white with the prominant red V-shaped patch and severely reduced the flower count (usually no more than about five). Several forms of this hybrid were made using different forms of each parent. Cymbidium Eburneo-lowianum 'Concolor' was an albino form that had C. lowianum 'Concolor' as one of its parents. C. Eburneo-lowianum 'Concolor' when crossed with C. insigne 'Sanderi' produced C. Alexanderi 'Westonbirt' the most famous parent of all time and the feature of a previous post.

Cymbidium Eburneo-lowianum 'Hong Kong'

In more recent times additional species have been brought into breeding programs to create new and unusual hybrids. A top hybrid registered in 1985 is Memoria Geoff Laird. Geoff was a renown orchid grower in New Zealand. Cymbidium madidum is an Australian native species that forms huge plants but has small flowers. Thankfully, it produces long spikes that have many flowers! When C. madidum is crossed with C. lowianum the result is a truly huge plant with modest sized flowers produced on pendulous spikes well over a metre in length. Talk about a gigantic hanging basket plant!!! The good aspect of this hybrid is that if flowers for me from November right through until January. Thank goodness I have plenty of room to house it as it is definitely not a plant for growers with small greenhouses or little space.

Cymbidium Memoria Geoff Laird 'Madalaine'

Another pendulous hybrid results when you cross C. lowianum with C. devonianum. The plant resembles the C. devoniaum parent which has short, wide leaves and strongly pendulous flower spikes. The colour of C. lowianum clearly shines through and increases the size of the flowers. Below is a form of C. Langleyense made using the normally coloured form of C. devonianum and C. lowianum 'Concolor'. The plant pictured is a form converted to a tetraploid. This is a magnificent plant that gets multiple spikes per bulb and flower spikes half a metre long with upwards of 35 flowers.

Cymbidium Langleyense 'Cascades' 4N

In 1902 a hybrid was created using C. lowianum and the near-monopodial, few-flowered white species C. mastersii. Cymbidium mastersii is a special species in that instead of producing normal pseudobulbs like other Cymbidiums continues to grow from one stem for several years, flowering progressively up the stem. The flowers don't open widely, are a bit small but this apparent shortcoming is more than made up for by the species elegant growth and superb fragrance. In the 1980 more interesting forms of C. mastersii became available, some being treated to increase their ploidy level. These select forms were crossed with select forms of C. lowianum to produce very beautiful offspring. Below is one of these modern crossings. The parents of this one are C. lowianum 'Concolor' and C. mastersii 'Geyserland'. The seedling were converted to tetraploids. The colour of these plants is very hard to capture as it is an ice green/white and the lip has an almost magenta-red patch on the lip. When it flowers next year I will get a much better picture. I am still learning the finer points of photography. Some colours still give me curry. So does focus.

Cymbidium Lowio-mastersii 4N

Cymbidium Lowio-grandiflorum, like C. lowio-mastersii, was registered in 1902. In many respects this is the type of hybrid that you would expect to see in the wild. Both C. lowianum and C. grandiflorum (hookerianum) grow near to each other but are normally prevented from cross-pollinating as their flowering time does not overlap. Both species are green with red on the lip. C. grandiflorum has spots on the front part of the lip and stripes of the sidelobes. C. lowianum only has the V-shaped red bar on the edge of the midlobe of the lip. Crossing the two combines all the best features of both parents but also removes a couple of others. C. grandiflorum is highly fragrant, C. lowianum and C. Lowio-grandiflorum completely scentless. The stems of C. lowianum are strong and arching, C. grandiflorum thin and pendulous. The hybrid is somewhat in between, not strong enough to be arching but too strong to be pendulous. Cymbidium lowio-grandiflorum is however remarkably strongly and clearly coloured. Unfortunately, it is most commonly identified as C. lowianum, its unique qualities and identity being subsumed into its more common parent.

Cymbidium Lowio-grandiflorum 'Clearview'

Below are two hybrids that show very strong C. lowianum influence. The upper photo is a hybrid between C. Pauwelsii and C. eburneum and is called C. Sybil. This plant came to me from a deceased estate in Sydney and still had the brass, embossed label on it when I inherited it in 1983. Cymbidium Sybil was registered in 1916, the year my father was born. Interestingly enough, while the colour of the C. Pauwelsii parent is washed out, the strong fragrance of the C. eburneum parent is only slightly diminished. This is one of my favourite plants. It is hard to portray exactly how beautiful this plant is. I know that most people go for the beauty of the individual flower but in some cases the production and configuration of the whole plant, leaves, flower spikes and individual flowers come together to make one magnificent whole. The flower spikes produce only 5 or so flowers and they barely make it beyond the leaves. However, each bulb produces, on average two spikes per year and will flower for 2-3 years from the same bulb. The leaves are thin and arching. The pseudobulbs are long and narrow and tightly clustered. I have never divided the plant in all of the time that I have had it, only removing dead pseudobulbs and refreshing the potting mix. It grows happily in a 12 inch pot. This year it has 17 flower spikes, it would have had 18 but I broke one off after it came out and gave it to a friend.

Cymbidium Sybil 'Perky'

This last plant is the problem child of my collection. I bought it many many years ago as a seedling. I actually have several from the same batch that look similar. It was sold to me as C. lowianum from a reliable grower who had inported a flask from an even more reliable grower in California. It look for all the world like a C. lowianum and the plants and flowering time are identical. The other alternative is that it may be the hybrid between Golden Cascade and C. lowianum 'Concolor' . Cymbidium Golden Cascade is half C. lowianum 'Concolor' so this would make the hybrid pictured below 3/4 C. lowianum 'Concolor'. It is one of those plants that i will never really know for sure what it is, but hey, some plants are just so stunning that you keep them anyway. This one is a keeper.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Cymbidium Alexanderi 'Westonbirt'

Some plants are just steeped in mystery and romance. There is the legendary Rafflesia arnoldii that purportedly has the largest flower in the world. This giant flower, up to 1 m across and weighing in at 10 k grows in the deepest darkest rainforests of Malaysia, Sumatra and Indonesia. Rafflesia adds to its mystery as it is parasitic, living its life inside the stems of the grape relative Tetrastigma. The flowers burst through the sides of the plant stems in the same manner as the alien emerged from the humans in the movie Alien. As if this plant did not have enough weirdness about it the flowers just had to smell of rotting meat and be pollinated by blowflies.

The orchid world is resplendent with stories of fantastic plants that have been found once in some far-flung jungle and never to be seen again. Paphiopedilum sanderianum was found in 1885 in Borneo but the specific location was never recorded. This bizarre flower has twisted hairy petals that grow up to a metre in length. Imagine a flower stem with 6 flowers with long, flowing hairy tresses. The plant equivalent of Medusa! Some plant freaks go so far as to suggest that these long hairy petals are ladders, up which the insect pollinators climb. It was not until 1978 that it was rediscovered. The only proof that this plant existed was a beautiful drawing. Some botanists went so far as to think and, God-forbid, say that it may have been a hoax. The plant still grows in a highly protected national park in Borneo. Oh, you can also buy a 2.25 inch pot for $125.oo.

The genus Cymbidium is not immune from both real and imagined mysterious plants. Cymbidium sanderae , or Cymbidium parishii var sanderae as it is more widely known, is a classic. It is not really clear where the plant actually comes from. The location on the original label does not exist. The specimen sheet that represents the type specimen is a mixture of flowers from different plants, giving the impression of a hybrid swarm. Cymbidium sanderae was lost to cultivation and in the wild until it was discovered in a greenhouse in California. That original plant was propagated and colchicine treated to convert some of the progeny into tetraploids. The diploid and tetraploid forms are now grown widely throughout the world but have still not been relocated in the wild. The plant freaks starting to question the validity of C. sanderae as a species as they are wont to do with long 'extinct' plants.

Anyone that has had even a passing fancy for Cymbidium hybrids and their parents would know that C. Alexanderi 'Westonbirt' is by far the most famous stud plant, having sired or carried literally hundreds of progeny. Most of the large-flowered Cymbidium hybrids and an increasing number of the more modest-sized hybrids can trace back to C. Alexanderi 'Westonbirt'. I won't go into the history of this plant as this plant is probably the most written about Cymbidium. Suffice to say it has it all, beauty, fertility, fame, fortune, it was breed on the estate of a famous aristocrat and awarded a First Class Certificate by none other than the Royal Horticultural Society. No story is complete without a bit of skullduggery and a few questions about breeding!

So lets get to the parents of C. Alexanderi. The listed parents are C. eburneo-lowianum x insigne but things are never as straightforward as what they seem. Getting more specific we find out that the parents are C. eburneo-lowianum 'concolor' x insigne 'Sanderi'. Now you ask, 'Why does the insertion of 'concolor' make a difference?". Well, you see, C. eburneo-lowianum 'concolor' is a hybrid between the species C. eburneum and C. lowianum 'concolor'. 'So?', you ask. This is where the dodgy breeding comes in. Cymbidium lowianum 'concolor' is a freak wildling that has a problem. It has faulty chromosomes that don't go through meiosis properly. What this means is that some of the progeny may have twice as many chromosomes. This is what has happened with C. Alexanderi 'Westonbirt'. While most of the C. Alexanderi grex where diploids, several turned out to be tetraploids. Tetraploids tend to be larger overall compared with their diploid siblings. C. Alexanderi 'Westonbirt' created an absolute sensation when exhibited at the Royal Horticulture Societies orchid committee and was immediately awarded.

But lets back up a bit here. The grex C. Alexanderi was made many times using slightly different parents. Siblings were also crossed with each other. All this breeding resulted in a wide range of colours from pure white albinos through yellows, pinks and murky reddish browns all using the same 'species' in the same proportions. Several of these alternative C. Alexanderi were also awarded. All went quiet on creating C. Alexanderi until recently when Andy Easton tried to repeat the cross using improved parents. His results are spectacular but nothing has resulted that approaches C. Alexanderi 'Westonbirt'.

Why would anyone want to re-create C. Alexanderi 'Westonbirt'? Put quite simply, the original plants were held quite tightly by the original owner in England. Unfortunately, most of these original plants became infected with virus and had to be destroyed. Now I am not one to look for the benefits of war, but the Second World War may have saved the life of C. Alexanderi 'Westonbirt'. With the likelihood of the destruction of London and the rationing of all things during the war, some of the large estates sent their prized plants to friends in far-flung regions of the British Empire. C. Alexanderi 'Westonbirt' was one of these plants. Thankfully, some of these pre-war plants were virus free.

A few of these plants went to a grower in Canada. From there, divisions were sent to Australia and found their way into the collection of a very wealthy and very private gentleman. His gardeners were very meticulous and kept this mans collection of awarded plants in very good condition. Near the end of this man's life, he passed on divisions of his prized plants on to another wealthy and, interestingly enough, very private man. Neither of these men had the slightest interested in the commercial orchid trade having made their fortunes through business for the former and by being a surgeon for the later. The surgeon, a good friend of mine, called me up last year and asked me to come over. Normally, it is me that rings him! This got my mind thinking he had gotten a new lot of plants that he wanted me to see. The truth was much more exciting.

When I arrived at my surgeon friends house we had the obligatory cup of tea, chocolate biscuits and chat. He then started to talk to me about his health. He is well past his seventieth birthday. He mentioned that his heart had been playing up and that the doctors had to 'zap' him a few times to get the beat regular again. This had encouraged him to think of his future, his much younger wife's future and what was going to happen to his plants. He was kind enough to say that he had written me into his will. I was to have first dibs on his collection of species. This was a very nice gesture and I must admit, slightly overwhelming to be told this before someone's death. I felt honoured that he would trust me to carry on his legacy. I had seen his plants many times and his collection of species contains almost all awarded clones. The greenhouse is meticulously clean and the plants are well grown and virus-free. Any new plants are quarantined and tested before they are allowed into the main greenhouses.

What happened next shook me. Did I mention this surgeon is a very private person? He keeps a lot of secrets and the one he was about to reveal was a stunner. He took me to a greenhouse way down the back of the property that I had never been to. Actually, I did not even know it was there. He unlocked and opened the door. What was inside was amazing. There were three long benches running the length of the greenhouse, the one in the middle double-wide. It contained only Cymbidiums, all grown to specimen size except for a small group of a few dozen smaller pots on one of the side benches. It was like going back in time. The plants were all grown in terracotta pots and meticulously groomed. The floor was covered in clean algae-free concrete creating an almost surgical cleanliness. As we walked down the edge of one of the benches, I asked him what these Cymbidiums were. FCC's he said. Yep, he had made a collection of only FCC Cymbidiums. and had been doing so since he was a young man.

One particular plant caught my eye, a plant I had only seen in pictures. Yes, it was C. Alexanderi 'Westonbirt' . I asked him where he had gotten it. He told me the out of England to Canada to Tasmania story. He had inherited his older plants from the Tasmanian man in the 1960's. Then he mentioned that Dr. Don Wimber had seen the plants in the 1960's or 70's and had confirmed its identity. This shocked me as I didn't think he was social enough to have known many people in the orchid world. This helped me to believe him that this C. Alexanderi 'Westonbirt' was the real deal.

More recently, my friend has had another turn. Unsurprisingly his first priority was to ensure that his wife will be well looked after. More surprising is that he is almost equally concerned about his collection of awarded Cymbidiums. I visited him this weekend to catch up. Again he rang me not the other way around. No Tea and biscuits today. He was in the mood for a good chat. He even berated me for being fifteen minutes late. A quick pass through the species house and straight to the Cymbidium house. Door unlocks and in we go. This time bypassing the specimen plants and right to the smaller plants. There it is, C. Alexanderi 'Westonbirt' in full bloom in an 8" pot. He reaches down, picks it up and hands it to me. He repeated this with half a dozen other famous plants. I still have not come down from the excitement. I ask him if he was trying to give me a heart attack.

Now I have a dilemma. I have to build a greenhouse like his. I would like something with a concrete floor, brick base and aluminium and glass top. Oh, and a lockable door. My finances are nothing like my friend's. For the moment, my new plants are locked in my potting shed.

When I got home I had to quickly get a photo of C. Alexanderi 'Westonbirt'; partly to prove it was real and partly to capture it for posterity. I had never seen a real plant and I could touch and look at this one to my hearts content. Most, if not all of the pictures I had seen, looked nothing like the original painting done on the day it was awarded at Greycoat St. London, SW1.

The first photo below is reproduced courtesy of the Royal Horticultural Society, London (Orchid Committee) . It shows a painting of a single flower of C. Alexanderi 'Westonbirt' on the day it was awarded, 14th march 1922. The other three are photos of plant in my potting shed. Have a look at the upper flower in the photo with two flowers. Remarkably similar to the drawing from the RHS. Even the petals are folding in just the same way. I wonder how long it will take me to settle down?