Orchids from Seed

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Most growers will get a pod on their orchid at some stage and want to grow the seeds. This is not as simple as it might seem, but can be done. This article describes some of the options available to the home grower. First, I will briefly describe the process of orchids growing from seed in Nature.

Orchids, like all other flowering plants, produce flowers as a means of achieving pollination to produce seed. The seed is necessary to produce new plants to continue the species. (Some also reproduce by other means such as keikis or daughter tubers, but all will reproduce by seed.) Very briefly, the flowers attract pollinators, usually insects, which transfer the pollinia from one flower to the stigma of another flower. This completes the pollination after which the flower will collapse and the ovary (stem at the rear of the flower) will swell forming the pod. Over the next 3 to 12 months, the pods will form. When the pod is ripe, it will turn yellow or brown before splitting and dispersing the seed. This seed is the next generation for our orchid.

Most plant seeds (except orchids) are relatively large and contain a large store of nutrition to sustain the young plant before leaves and roots develop enough to continue sustaining the growing plant. With this type of seed, you just pop the seed in soil, water, and watch the seedling grow. Most garden plant seeds are of this type. Examples are beans, peas, corn, tomatoes and lettuce, all the seeds you see at your local nursery or produce store. Orchid seed, in comparison, is tiny, like dust. It contains virtually no nutrition to grow the new plant, so orchid seed relies on a mycorrhizal fungus to provide the nutrition required to grow. Until the young orchid grows leaves and roots large enough to support the orchid, the fungus must provide all the nutrition for the growing plant. Without this fungus, there is no possibility of the seed developing.

Now, back to how to grow your seed. If you just put your seed in a pot and water, it will not grow without the required fungus. Early orchid growers had little success growing orchids from seed due to this problem. They found to have any chance of success, the seed should be sown on the mother pot around the roots of the parent plant. Here, the potting media will be moist due to normal watering of the pot and will also contain suitable mycorrhizal fungus from the parent plant. Many species will grow using this method. Phaius, for example, grow extremely well using this method. A soon as the seedlings are of sufficient size, they should be moved into their own pot as the young plants will suffer from the competition from the parent plant. Many epiphytes will germinate using this method, so it may be worth a try with your pod.

A variation of this method is to boil a new terracotta pot for fifteen minutes to sterilise and when cool, fill three quarters with sphagnum moss and peat moss. Cover the surface with a new clean fine cloth, tucking the edges down the sides of the pot to seal the moss under the cloth. The surface of the cloth is then sterilised with boiling water. A couple of roots from the parent plant are cut into small pieces and spread over the cloth. This provides the source of the mycorrhizal fungus. The seed is now spread over the cloth between the root pieces from the parent plant and the pot covered with clear plastic to keep the seedlings humid. The pot is sat in a saucer full of water kept filled to keep the pot moist. The pot and saucer is then put in a warm bright spot where the seeds should grow with the assistance of the mycorrhizal fungus from the parent plant roots. This method has the advantage over seeding in the parent plant that the seeds are not at risk from being washed from the pot when watering the parent plant and does not require the parent plant to be continuously watered.

Unfortunately, many species will not grow reliably using these methods. The most reliable method is asymbiotic germination, or flasking. This method involves growing the seeds in a nutrient solution which provides the necessary nutrients for the growing plants. This avoids the necessity of the mycorrhizal fungus. The nutrient solution is mixed into agar, a gel, to provide mechanical support for the seedlings. Unfortunately, other organisms, like bacteria and fungus, also love growing in the nutrient solution and will overrun the seedling, just like weeds in our gardens, smothering and killing the seedlings. To prevent this, the agar media, flask and seed is sterilised ensuring that there is nothing in the flask to compete with the young seedlings.

After the seed is sown in the flask, the flask is placed in a warm, well lit area where the seed will germinate in a few months to a few years, most species only taking a few months. After germination, the seedlings will grow requiring the seedlings to be repeatedly moved into new flasks to replenish the nutrients and to prevent the seedlings becoming overcrowded. After one to two years, the seedlings will normally be large enough to survive outside the flask. The seedlings are removed from the flask, all the agar solution washed from the plants and then potted into pots where they continue to grow. For the first few weeks, the tiny plants are kept moist and humid while they acclimatise to life outside the flask. The seedlings will then take another 2 to 10 years or more, depending on the species, before they are large enough to flower, most common species taking around 2 or 3 years.

Flasking is the method used commercially to grow orchid from seed. It has proven to be reliable, relatively cheap and simple. All seed can be reliably grown in flasks only requiring a change to the flask formulation for some difficult to grow species. There are many books describing flasking techniques in detail and many articles on the internet. Flasking can be done very simply at home using common household appliances and no special equipment. Media can be made using mostly household items from variety of formulas, or commercial mixtures are available at reasonable prices. Flasking is not out of reach of the home hobbyist with some of our own members producing many of their own flasks quiet successfully and reliably.

Another method is to use an orchid nursery to produce your flask. Many nurseries will flask your seeds for a modest price. This is by far the simplest method in that you just provide the pod and fee to the nursery and in about two years, they return the flasks of seedlings ready to be deflasked.

The question you now need to ask yourself is ‘Do I really want to grow from seed?’ You are looking at three to twelve months for the pod to ripen, one to four years of growing in the flask followed by one to ten years or more of growing the young orchid before you see your first flower if growing by flask. If growing symbiotically, you will still need 3 to 12 months for the pod to ripen, followed by two to 10 years of growing the orchid to achieve a flower. All up, you are looking at about 3 to 15 years, including years of watering, fertilising and repotting before you see a flower.

If you have an insect pollinated flower of unknown heritage, you will be working from three up to fifteen years to see a flower of questionable heritage and quality. If you have a pod from your own crossing, you will again be investing years of effort before you see any results, but at least you have some idea of the likely outcome of your efforts. Compare this with purchasing a seedling from your local orchid nursery. Nursery seedlings are relatively large compared to an orchid just out of flask and thus is much easier to grow. Being a larger plant, they will generally flower in one to three years, unless a particularly slow growing species which could take ten years or even more years. The nursery will have bred these seedlings using superior parents with consideration of their parentage to maximise the chance that the seedlings are of high quality. Alternatively, mericlones of awarded orchids can be purchased which virtually guarantee a quality orchid.

You need to seriously consider if your seed pod is worth the effort to grow.  There is the satisfaction of creating your own orchids, but only you can decide whether it is worth all the effort involved.  Unless you have the quality parent plants and genetic knowledge to maximise you breeding success, you are playing a low return lottery on achieving a quality orchid to repay your efforts.

Graham Corbin


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