Abies balsamea 'Nana'

Abies balsamea 'Nana'

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Adventures in hybridizing

A couple weeks ago, I decided on a whim to try cross-pollinating my two Phragmipedium orchids. One is the species, Phrag. pearcei. The other is a hybrid between that species and Phrag. besseae, called Olaf Gruss. By putting pollen from Phrag. pearcei on Phrag. Olaf Gruss and vice versa, I hoped to get seed from at least one of them. And from that seed I hoped to get a plant that would have more of the Phrag. pearcei shape, but retain the color of Phrag. Olaf Gruss inherited from its other parent.

Here are both flowers, before the procedure:


The tools for pollinating slipper orchids include a sharp pair of pruners and a toothpick, q-tip, or other implement on which you can catch the pollinia, a structure composed of many pollen grains stuck together with wax.

Now to prepare the flowers. The stigma in slipper orchids is concealed by the pouch. Although not necessary, it is much, much easier for humans to pollinate slipper orchids after the pouch is removed. Luckily we are not their natural pollinators. In nature, insects crawl in the front of the pouch and can only escape by climbing up the back. In the process, they brush against the stigma and then the pollinia, which adhere to the insects until taken through another slipper orchid flower. Below is a picture of the pouch, or slipper, of Phrag. pearcei after cutting it from the rest of the flower.

Slipper orchids already have an odd, almost alien appearance. With the pouch removed, they look even stranger! The central structure, which in Phrag. pearcei has two furry little "eyebrows" is called the staminode. Under and behind this structure is the stigma. On each side, just under the outside ends of each "eyebrow" in this flower, are the two pollinia.

Phrag. Olaf Gruss received the same treatment.

Detached from the flowers, you can really see how these orchids and their relatives the Paphiopedilums and Cypripediums got their shared common name of lady slippers. Somewhere there is a tiny fairy lady missing a partner from two sets of shoes. It's a little-known fact that fairies, being rather contrary to their larger counterparts, invented the open-heeled shoe. 


 You can just see one of the pollinia, at the tip of the green arrow, within the bend of the staminode.

Unfortunately, I was a little preoccupied during these next few steps to think about taking pictures. For a good picture of collecting the pollinia, follow this link.  For some really good close-up pictures of the various flower parts, with labels, click here.

To collect the pollinia, I simply maneuvered my tool, a wooden skewer in this case, under the pollinia and carefully lifted it away from the flower. The waxy pollinia sticks fairly easily to the wooden skewer, though it requires a steady hand so that they don't fall off. I then transferred the pollinia from one flower to the stigma of another, and repeated the process with pollinia from the second flower on the stigma of the first. 

A few days after attempting the pollination, the pollinated Olaf Gruss flower fell off, which is supposed to happen. The ovary, which becomes the seed capsule, is behind the flower attached to the flower stem. Another few days later, the pollinated Phrag. pearcei bloom also fell. Theoretically, when an orchid is pollinated the flower falls off so that it isn't bothered by any more pollinators. I say theoretically because both of these flowers were a little on the old side and also cutting off the pouches (damaging the flowers) can also cause them to drop. So I had no way to know yet if I had been successful. 

Unfortunately, yesterday I noticed the ovary from the pollinated Olaf Gruss flower was shriveled a bit on the end and it came off quite easily. That one was a bust, but what about the pollinated Phrag. pearcei?  Thin as the day they were wed. If the pollination had been successful, I would have expected the ovary to start to swell by now. However, it hasn't fallen off and doesn't appear to be shriveling yet, so I will simply wait and watch. 

On the plus side, I have the plants now, so I can try again with future blooms. In fact, I had thought my Phrag. pearcei had only one more bloom for this round, but looking at the end of the flower stalk today I noticed it has another one after that! I wonder how long it will keep going. It's had three flowers so far, meaning a total of five if this newest "last" flower is the finale. But perhaps it will have yet another after that. This is the fun of sequential-blooming orchids. Some of them can keep going almost indefinitely. Meanwhile, Olaf Gruss is being a show-off with four flowers open at once. 


8 comments:

  1. Wish I had the patience or time to do it but hybridizing can be so fun and you may end up with something unique! With your experience now hopefully it'll be much easier next time.

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    1. I hope so! This is the first of many, though probably not too many orchid crosses. I plan on working with more hardy plants once I get the chance.

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  2. Oh how very interesting, certainly beats a night in front of the TV. Keep us updated on the Phragmipedium pearcei.

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    1. Lol. Actually, I did it while the cable guy was here installing my internet. I'm watching the Phrag. pearcei with bated breath.

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  3. This is a fascinating different branch of gardening than most of us are plying. I, for one, will be following your experiments with great interest.

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    1. This is what I hope to do for a living, though not with orchids. I expect I'll be writing about this much more as I gain experience and momentum in this area.

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  4. I can't think of a better occupation for winter days in Wisconsin. I hope the 2nd attempt yields a positive result.

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    1. Thanks! I hope so, too! I should get a few more flowering plants so I can play around with them this winter.

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