Nearly gone are the days when commercial growers transplanted thousands of young orchid seedlings, raised them to maturity, watched them bloom, and picked the best. Selective breeding, as it was called, was the standard practice for raising popular genera such as Cattleyas, Dendrobiums, Oncidiums, and Phalaenopsis as late as the 1990’s.
I remember receiving boxes of Oncidium hybrids from the famous Rod McLellan Co of San Francisco that were seed grown. The varieties were all lovely but one was so good that we took it to an orchid judging center where it received a major award from the American Orchid Society. We later had the mahogany colored variety cloned and distributed worldwide as Colmanara Wildcat ‘Chadwick’ AM/AOS (Rustic Bridge x Onc Crowborough) to great fanfare.
In another instance, I used to drive five hours just to hand pick yellow Phalaenopsis seedlings from a small grower in Kannapolis, North Carolina - Lenette Greenhouses. Novelty breeding was still in its infancy and nowhere near the perfection of the big round whites and pinks. Lenette had a clever system of planting baby orchids in trays of tiny bark chips. Clients could buy an entire tray which contained about 30 plantlets or purchase single plants called ‘dug-ups’. We acquired some of the best yellow hybrids in the country at the time.
Today, most orchids being produced are Phalaenopsis and they are cloned and grown on a grand scale, often in facilities that resemble factories. There are conveyor belts, artificial lights, and automatic potting machines. There might not be an employee in sight.
It is refreshing to see that Paphiopedilums or “Lady Slippers” are still being grown from seed with all the charming variations that make orchids so enchanting. Scientists have been stymied by the technical aspects of cloning Paphs so, for now, there are some wonderfully unique plants to be found. It’s akin to shopping at a flea market or garage sale in which a savvy buyer can walk away with the plant equivalent of a diamond in the rough.
Let’s look at what some of these seed grown variations can look like. The most obvious differences between plants are in the flowers – the color, size and shape of the parts including the pouch, the dorsal sepal and the two petals. Some have bumps while others are plain. Some are borne on tall spikes while others are modest. Then there is the foliage. Here, we find everything from long and narrow to short and stumpy with all sorts of green shades and patterns.
There are generally two kinds of Lady Slippers. The ‘Complex’ or ‘Bulldog’ type have solid green leaves and bloom in the winter with large and varied blossoms. The ‘Mottled-Leaf’ or ‘Maudiae’ type offer patterned foliage and don’t have a specific season producing mostly greenish or burgundy flowers.
Paphiopedilums are considered ideal companion plants for Phalaenopsis because they both prefer indirect light and like to be kept damp. First time hobbyists typically start out with Phals, become proficient, then move on to Paphs. The thrill of blooming a one-of-a-kind orchid has kept growers fascinated for generations.