Plants of Passion, Flowers of Fashion

Secrets of orchids’ surprising beginnings in life and horticulture.

Story & Photos By B Naqqi Manco, TCI Naturalist

My late World History professor’s house was set deep back in a fall under large hickory and oak trees in one of the small mid-Atlantic USA university town’s older suburban areas. Cold, unkempt evergreens and mossy bricks belied the workings deep within the house.
I hesitated, finding excuses to make some minor bicycle repairs; I was nervous and had only caught glimpses of the complex world which I was about to enter. Stalling, I stowed my bike and went to the door, where I was greeted and ushered inside by my professor, a stout, stately, well-published feminist historian who was not quite eccentric but definitely eclectic. Her home decor was a mix of rural Americana and matriarchal tribal, but we passed through this melangé of bric-a-brac quickly and descended into the basement. Unusually, when the door to the basement opened, extremely bright, white artificial light struck my eyes. Shining stainless shelves held a multitude of bizarrely-leaved plants with bulbous bases and ostentatious flowers in myriad pinks and mauves. She toured me around her collection, perhaps even more enthusiastically than she toured us through Women in Prehistory in class. She explained her care routine before cupping a tiny cutting of one of the more carefree plants into my hand, and then ushered me back out into the drab autumn dimness. I looked down at the stiff leaves and squiggly, worm-like roots on the cutting in my hand. Epidendrum radicans, she called it.
I had just entered, irreversibly and only semi-informed, into the indulgent and complex world of the orchid fanciers.

Demdrobium orchids are easy to grow and commonly hybridised.

These fanciers are not always fringe people, but a visit to the home of a serious hobbyist or a commercial orchid show will surely suggest otherwise. Thick, glossy magazines, both scientific and aesthetic, discuss recent hybrids and newly described species on racks beside which readers jostle for rare back issues. Specialty artisan carpenters market strangely-shaped baskets in naturally rough teak and cedar that are more space than slat. Slabs of cork bark and the densely wiry skeletons of tree ferns dangle from stands waiting to be gripped by silvery-green roots.
And then there are the plants — from the miniscule and moss-like dwarf New Guinea canes to the massive grass-leaved giants resembling sugarcane stalks; from the opulent and tawdry corsage-quality Cattleya to the downright unnerving monstrous drippy, twisted Asian slippers; from the vulgarly common moth orchids to the unattainable ghost orchids. Scents including vanilla, chocolate, coconut and rotten fish compete with flowers resembling cartoon cows, perfect monkey portraits, and anatomically-correct dancing naked men with preposterous endowments.
Encyclia altissima is TCI's most common orchid.With over 25,000 species thought to be in this group, the Family Orchidaceae is one of the largest plant families known, and definitely one of the most diverse. Orchids can be tropical or temperate, even arctic; they can grow in soil, on the bark of trees, on bare rock, and in some cases, more or less in mid-air. Some grow from branching stems and reproduce by spreading (these are called sympodial orchids) and others grow only from one point and reproduce only by seed (these are called monopodial orchids). Despite their diversity, orchids hold some important similarities: Their flower structure is unique and uniform throughout the family (though varies wildly in shape and colour), and they grow from seed in a remarkably complex relationship with other organisms.
It is this complex seed growth that made orchids so rare in horticulture for so long. The first tropical orchid to show up in the plant trade in Victorian England was Cattleya labiata, which was actually used as packing material to pad shipments of ferns from South America; ferns were so insanely popular as houseplants in the mid 1800s that the period was known as Pteridomania, or “Fern Fever.” When some salvaged Cattleya plants unexpectedly bloomed with frilly pink mega-blossoms, they became instantly popular and suddenly orchid fever was born. The craze demanded more plants, which were routinely ripped off of trees and shipped to Europe. Orchid hunters ventured throughout the tropics and many species became rare. Prices soared, because despite the high demand, no one could seem to make much sense of orchid seeds or get them to grow.

The Caicos orchid, unique to TCI, occurs in several color varieties.

Most seeds are a simple design: a plant embryo surrounded by stored food and a tough protective coat. Orchid seeds are far simpler — they are little more than a capsule of DNA in a papery wrapper. They are minute — as small as particles of household dust, they drift on air currents and are produced in extreme numbers. One orchid pod can easily produce well upwards of half a million seeds. With so many seeds, why weren’t more plants being grown?
The first challenge was pollinating flowers. While orchid seed is dustlike, orchid pollen is not — it is bagged into plastic-like sacs called pollinia. The pollinia are attached to a structure not unlike a sticky note — a papery tab with a dab of glue on it. The glue sticks to pollinators, usually insects, and often a unique insect species for each orchid species. The pollinia are torn away as the pollinator leaves, and set in just the right position to pollinate another flower.

This is the red variety of the Caicos orchid.

Orchids are maniacally ingenious at attracting these pollinators. Many produce sweet-smelling perfumes that insinuate a supply of nectar, but there is often none. Some mimic the look and scent of female wasps to fool males into trying to mate with them to make pollen contact. Still others produce waxy fragrances that are used by bees as obligatory perfumes to find their own mates. When these devious methods of pollination finally deliver, an orchid forms a pod full of seeds, a process that can easily take half a year to complete.
Orchid seeds grew only rarely in greenhouse conditions. Typical techniques were to sow seeds onto the same surface on which the mother plant was growing, or on burlap that had been laid down under the mother plant so when it was watered, the overflow could soak the burlap. This occasionally yielded seedlings, and eventually, it was discovered why.
The lack of stored food in orchid seeds means they cannot grow on their own. When an orchid seed settles on a surface, that surface has to be just right — meaning it needs to have another organism, namely a fungus, already inhabiting it. Not just any fungus will do — the species has to be the right one for the orchid. The fungus will attempt to consume the orchid seed, as it would most plant material in its path. This absorption switches the seed on, and its devious internal dealings force the fungus to send it food — orchids begin life as parasites on fungi. The seed grows into a green, onion-shaped bulb called a protocorm, from which the first tiny leaves and roots appear. Eventually the baby orchid latches onto the surface the fungus was using, and grows into a plant. Once this process was understood, a new way of growing seeds was devised.
Today, orchids are grown by the millions commercially by sowing seeds on nutrient agar in sterile flasks — similarly to how bacterial cultures are done. The nutritious jelly feeds all of the seeds equally, so they can grow quickly. Though most orchids take at least five years from seed to bloom, the process has been commercialised such that the price of many orchids has dropped.
This has also led to a confusing array of hybridisation — not only are different species hybridised, but species in different genera can often be hybridised as well. Hybrids are crossed with other hybrids, breeding for flower size and quality, until some plants exist that contain the DNA of ten different genera in them. This sort of mixing has turned conventional taxonomy on its side, and there are multitudes of theories of just how to classify orchids since the overwhelming majority seem to be able to breed with one another. Of course, seeds from a single pod are like siblings — the same parentage does not equate to identical DNA, so each seed is unique. When a particularly amazing flower is found from such crosses, the plant’s meristem tissue, similar to human stem cells, can be harvested and grown on special hormone-laced agar to clone the plant millions of times. This is why now the flashiest and longest-blooming orchids can be bought for just a few dollars in big box stores and garden centres.
The passion for orchids has extended to the common people; it is no longer a hobby exclusive to aristocracy. Gimmicks have even popped up, like dyed Smurf-blue moth orchids (which disappoint owners by blooming their true white next time) and orchids that are said to thrive on being watered with ice cubes (which is a great way to kill them).
Gimmicky azure orchids are not to be found in Turks & Caicos, but we have plenty of our own native orchids that are every bit as ornamental as common hybrids. Our most common orchids are members of the genus Encyclia. These are sympodial orchids, locally called wild shallots due to the plants’ resemblance to green onions.
Five species are found in TCI. The most common is the tall Encyclia, Encyclia altissima, a plant we share with the Bahamas, Cuba, and Hispaniola. This species flowers from November to February and plants are often nearly a metre tall. The flowers throw off a sweet, spicy perfume in the morning and evening. The red Encyclia Encyclia rufa betrays its name by blooming yellow, green, or white in TCI, and is recognisable for its spherical bulbs and broad, strappy leaves; it also lives in the Bahamas where it may bloom more to its namesake’s suggestion. The similar but smaller rock Encyclia Encyclia gracilis is also unique to the Bahamas and TCI and grows directly on limestone on ridge tops and pine yards, and blooms rarely in September or October from spiky, blade-like leaves built to withstand the extreme heat and drought of its habitat. With Great Inagua, we share the thin-leaved, delicate Inagua Encyclia Encyclia inaguensis, which flowers in the spring months. Finally, the endemic Caicos Encyclia Encyclia caicensis is found only in the Caicos Islands, and its flower stalks bloom to an impressive height of 2.5 metres July–August. The flowers are incredibly variable in colour, from deep brown red to pure yellow or white. Their scent is a spicy, sweet delicious smell like spiced vanilla coconut cookies. These orchids also freely hybridise on rare occasions when their blooming cycles overlap, and some “intermediate” plants are found throughout the wild areas of TCI, causing botanists constant confusion.
We have several other native orchids that inhabit the leaf litter of forest floors. The spotted monk orchid Oeceoclades maculata became common throughout the Caribbean after seeds from Africa arrived on hurricane winds in the middle of the last century. The very plain green ladies’ tresses Spiranthes polyantha grows in deep shade, while its grassy-leaved cousin the spring ladies tresses Spiranthes vernalis prefers soil pockets in pine yards. The tiny adder’s mouth orchid Malaxis spicata is occasionally found in Middle Caicos. The spookily named Britton’s shadow witch Ponthieva brittonae has blossoms that resemble flying, singing angels in witch’s hats, and grows in TCI only in tropical dry forests on North Caicos. All of these species are more common in wetter parts of the Caribbean and Florida.
Our native orchids are easy to grow in gardens, and prefer to be planted against the base of rough-barked trees where they can climb. DEMA organises plant rescues occasionally, and orchids taken from building sites are often re-homed to members of the TCI Environmental Club and other enthusiasts, with instructions on how to plant them. Exotic orchids are also sometimes grown in TCI, and several hobbyists passionately coddle their plants into blooming cycles — others tie them to the side of a tree and then more or less neglect them (both methods work fine, depending on the species). Whether hanging baskets in the scattered shade of large trees, or affixing the plants directly to those trees, it is always best to water orchids with rainwater rather than tap water, and to ensure that they are free of pests such as webspinners (long-bodied insects that create silk tunnels and eat velamen, the white or silvery coating on orchid roots). While some species need extra water to get them through the dry season, others need to dry out for part of the year. Most orchids are seasonal bloomers, so do not be discouraged if they only put on a show for a month or so each year.
As it turns out, my first orchid, the red reed orchid Epidendrum radicans is one of the most forgiving and easy of orchids, and may bloom at any time of the year. I later found out it is the “first orchid” of many rabid collectors, the gateway plant, so to speak. Indeed, it led me on a collection obsession that resulted in my collection of Dendrobium, Tolumnia, Arundinia, Cattleya, Vanilla, Oncidium, Vanda, Phalaenopsis, Rhyncostylis, Rhyncholaelia, and other names that orchid enthusiasts learn as they become further fevered. My current Epidendrum radicans is a large, tangled mound of convoluted stems, stout leaves, wiry roots, and red-orange pinked flowers that offloads dozens of “keikis” (orchid-talk for baby plants) per year. These I share with fellow plant enthusiasts . . . spreading the madness of orchid fever.

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Gary James at Provo Pictures (www.provopictures.com) used a drone to photograph this bird’s-eye view of Dragon Cay off Middle Caicos. It perfectly captures the myriad of colors and textures that make God’s works of art in nature so captivating.

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