Where do orchids come from?
Seeds of course! As silly as it seems, that wasn’t known until around 1800. As they are very dust-like, it was speculated that they came from birds, goats, and even cadavers somehow in a magical way. Even after they were able to conclude that seeds were produced, it was well into the 1800s that it was known that orchids could be grown from seeds as they couldn’t understand that the dust from orchid seed pods were the seeds.
It wasn’t until around 1900 that orchid seeds were used to grow orchids once it was discovered that the seeds were provided nutrients from a fungus. That process was called symbiotic germination of orchid seeds as it relied on fungus providing nutrients for the seeds to germinate.
Unlike many seeds such as corn kernels, there are no nutrients stored around the embryos of the seed. Corn has a large packet of starch to help the process start, but orchids are just a little sack around a clump of cells.
In 1922, Lewis Knudson learned how to germinate orchid seeds in an artificial environment with nutrients he provided. Because there was no fungus involved, this process was named asymbiotic germination of orchid seeds. And it was done in a sterile container or flask as it is done today. While there are some fungi that provide nutrients, there are many more that also consume orchid seeds along with bacteria.
So it is important to maintain sterility of the working space when sowing and growing orchid seeds.
Since I was a kid, I have enjoyed growing plants from seeds. I don’t know if you had a teacher in school when you were a kid that had you grow green bean plants in a cup of dirt, but that fascinated me to create a living plant from a dried hard bean. To see such an amazing transformation from seed to a full sized plant is fun.
I was reluctant to try growing orchids from seeds, but after having done so, it is very rewarding and easier than I had imagined. You can create your own hybrids or reproduce more of an important species with your own bare hands. Like baking a cake for the first time, it seems like a lot of steps, but each one is simple and you will quickly learn the process. Just like how you eat an elephant – one bite at a time.
While commercial orchid labs have very nice and expensive equipment, it is quite easily achievable in a home setting with some basic equipment. There are companies that make the media for you to grow the plants in and it is just a matter of boiling water and mixing it in. Once you get the basic process down, and see your plants growing, you will want to do more of it.
The process begins with pollination of the flower. I would recommend something larger like a Phalaenopsis or Cattleya as they are easier to handle and see the pollen. Then it will take some months for the seeds to mature as the seed pod grows. The two basic methods sowing the seeds are when the pod is nearly mature or what is called green seed pod method or when the pod fully splits and starts spreading seeds or dry seed method.
The seeds are sanitized and in a clean area, transferred to a sterilized jar or flask with the media in it. Then it is a waiting game for germination. The first things you will see are tiny little green blobs on the media where the dusts of the seeds were dropped. Over a few months, green leaves start to emerge from the blobs and you might see some white fuzzy roots starting.
At this point the nutritional needs of the young plants will increase. The plantlets will be transferred to another container with higher nutrient media in it. Depending on the plant, several months will pass and you may need to transfer for some fresh media along the way.
When the plants have developed enough roots and leaves, you can remove the plants from the flasks and plant them together in a small pot. This is called a compot because it is a common pot for more than one plant to grow in. Seedlings do better closer together early on in their growth. After they adapt to the outside world, usually in about a year, you can transfer them to individual pots.
There are more details of course, but I hope this has piqued your curiosity. I will be offering classes in the technique for those interested in trying it themselves.