Green Pages

Bragging Rights

Taking on native orchid propagation by seed flasking.

Story & Photos By B Naqqi Manco, Department of Environment & Maritime Affairs

Several years ago, I attended an orchid show in Tampa, where orchid growers and the orchid product marketers who follow them gathered to display and sell their finest plants. The rich chocolate scent of a maroon-spotted-white Oncidium “Sharry Baby” and the tumble of intense gold flowers cascading from a basket of Dendrobium lindleyi wowed orchid nuts passing by the first-prize show table. A stout woman held a basket bearing a gigantic Vanda hybrid loftily, so that its long beard of dangling aerial roots would not become damaged — its mauve flower made her pink hoodie look faded. A tiny spindle of a man struggled with huge divisions of giant Schomburgkia on the way to his car.

The Caicos orchid is found nowhere else on earth.

My sister-in-law was with me admiring a rack full of Trichoglottis orchids from the Philippines, when a man with an American Orchid Society T-shirt passed by and said “Oh, those are difficult.” My sister-in-law came to my defence: “He can grow anything,” she replied. He upped the ante: “I grow montane Paphiopedalum.” He almost had us; those humidity-loving Asian alpine tropicals are notoriously difficult. But Cara was not dissuaded; she pulled out the secret weapon. Standing with an unshakable pride, hand cockily on hip, she blithely gestured toward me and announced, “Well, he grows from seed.” And that was it; he saluted and dejectedly retreated.

Caicos orchids grown from seed in sterile agar flasks.

One of the holy grails of orchid collecting is the growing of one’s own plants from seed, because it is remarkably difficult without the proper facilities and equipment. But with increasing development pressure, it was realised that something would have to be done to ensure that the Turks & Caicos’ own endemic orchid would not be lost. Proactively, with advice from several entrenched hobbyists and the amazing book Growing Orchids From Seed by Philip Seaton and Margaret Ramsay of Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, TCI’s orchid propagation by seed began.
Orchid seeds are little more than plain little packages of DNA without any ability to grow on their own; in nature perhaps one in a million seeds will land at the right place to form the complex symbiotic relationship with a fungus needed to grow into an orchid plant. It was not until the 1920s that a procedure was developed to grow orchids from seed without the use of a symbiotic fungus, and in such a way that very nearly every single seed would be able to grow.
This new method, called flasking, is used to grow orchids by the millions today. Flasking is a process by which seeds are grown on an agar-based medium with nutrients in a sterile container, something like how bacterial cultures are grown. The nutrient agar, formulated specifically for orchid seeds with sugar, fertiliser, fruit juice, and coconut water — all growers have their own favourite recipes — is mixed and poured into clear (usually glass) containers, which are then sterilised in an autoclave (or a pressure cooker, in a pinch) and allowed to rest to make certain they are not contaminated. After assuring that there is no sign of fungus or bacteria on the agar, the seeds are sterilised and sown carefully, and the flasks are re-sealed and placed under full-spectrum lights.
The tall Encyclia Encyclia altissima was first successfully flasked in TCI at the Turks & Caicos National Trust’s Middle Caicos Conservation Centre in May 2009. In January 2011, DEMA’s Rescue & Collection of Endangered & Endemic Plants Project, funded by the UK Government’s Joint Nature Conservation Committee, funded the first- ever successful flasking of the endemic Caicos Encyclia Encyclia caicensis. Wild plants were hand-pollinated in August 2010 to ensure against hybridisartion; DEMA scientific staff collected pollen and transferred it to other plants, removing all other pollinated or unopened flowers, and tagged hand-pollinated plants to ensure species purity.
Seed pods were collected when mature in January 2011, and most seed was held for long-term conservation storage in Royal Botanic Garden, Kew’s Millennium Seed Bank. Some of that seed was pulled out and grown in Kew’s micro-propagation laboratory, while still more was sown locally in TCI. To date, three of the many colour varieties of the Caicos Encyclia have been grown in agar flasks. The plantlets grow very slowly, and typically have to remain in flasks for over two years before they can be de-flasked and healed out into community pots, and finally mounted on individual rough surfaces or potted separately to grow into adult plants. It will likely take plants grown from seed seven to ten years to flower, but this ability that we now have to produce thousands of endemic orchid plants will help to ensure their long term survival. Many countries send their conservation seed to massive orchid laboratories in Asia, but with the capacity to flask orchid seeds locally, TCI not only retains control on its endemic plant genetic resources, but also holds bragging rights at gatherings of orchid enthusiasts. We grow from seed!
Visit the coastal scrub of Crossing Place Trail, Wild Cow Run and Long Bay in Middle Caicos between June and August to experience the mass blooming of the Caicos Encycila, found nowhere else on earth. Enjoy the sights and scents but please do not pick flowers or remove plants, as this directly threatens their survival.

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