Searching for Colorful Choices from Thousands of Possibilities
THE FIRST ORCHID HYBRID WAS artificially pollinated in 1852. John Dominy, foreman at the English orchid firm of Veitch and Sons, performed the hand pollination with the assistance of a surgeon named Dr. Harris. That hybrid, Calanthe Dominyi (masuca × furcata) was named for him and flowered in 1856.
The early orchid hybrids created considerable excitement at orchid exhibitions of the time. Nevertheless, the practice of orchid hybridization got off to a rather slow start. Dominy was the only orchid hybridizer for almost 20 years, during which time he created about two dozen hybrids.
Fortunately, the early hybridizers recognized the importance of good recordkeeping on the hybrids they made. Beginning in 1871, new orchid hybrids were published in the English magazine Gardeners’ Chronicle. The Orchid Review also ran the listings when it began publication in 1893. However, Frederick K. Sander created the most comprehensive publication on the subject. It was simply titled Sander’s List of Orchid Hybrids and was first printed in 1906. Numerous volumes of addenda were published at intervals by the Sander family until the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) assumed the orchid registration duties in 1961.
By 1890, 200 hybrid crosses had been registered. When the RHS began maintaining the registrations, the number of hybrids totaled about 35,000. By 1990, the number had climbed to nearly 100,000, and today there are more than 120,000 registered hybrids. It is invaluable that we have records of this important effort, but it should be understood that it is no more accurate than the humans who created it. Stories exist of hybridizers who misrepresented their breeding work in order to keep the key to their results a secret.
The myriad changes in orchid nomenclature through the decades can make it difficult to decipher a hybrid orchid’s lineage in contemporary terms. Still, it is amazing to study various orchid pedigrees with the goal of appreciating how a particular hybrid came to be and what characteristics it received from the various species that created it.
First we should clarify what, exactly, is a hybrid. In its simplest terms, a hybrid is a cross between two species, a species being the basic unit of taxonomy. Each species is a group that appears to have common ancestry and characteristics that separate it from other groups.
A cross between two species is known as a primary hybrid. Such hybrids often manifest characteristics that are attributable to each parent. When primary hybrids are crossed with different species or hybrids, the progeny are then known as complex hybrids. After several generations of such breeding, it may be difficult indeed to discern the contributions of the various species involved.
It is fair to ask why one would want a hybrid orchid over a species plant. The goal of most hybridizing is to blend desirable characteristics of each parent to produce a plant or flower that is an improvement over either parent. Such a goal might be to combine the size of the flower of one parent with the color of the flower of the other parent. Whether the resulting offspring are actually an improvement over their parents may be quite subjective. In many cases, only a small percentage of the offspring, perhaps one in ten, that will be of superior quality.
Another benefit of the hybrid plant is that it is often easier to grow than its species ancestors. This is because a particular species has often evolved to thrive in a unique ecological niche, while hybrids may inherit the ability to tolerate a broader range of climatic conditions based on the combination of genetic material received from its unrelated parents. Indeed, the concept of hybrid vigor is a reality.
Hybrids are usually easier to flower than their species parents as well, because they may not have the genetically programmed response to bloom only when the conditions of a unique habitat are favorable. In fact, it is through hybridization that we have been able to produce orchids that reliably grow and flower more than once a year. Such orchids have usually lost the requirement for a dormant period in their growth cycle.
GREX To provide some clarity to the plethora of hybrids, orchid no-menclature employs the concept of grex, a Greek word that means flock or herd. All of the offspring of a particular hybrid cross (and any subsequent crosses using the same parents) use the same grex name. In some cases, the individuals of a grex are quite similar in appearance, in others they may look very different from one another. The hybridizer who registers the cross has the right to name the grex.
Grex names are listed after the genus name. When in print, the genus is italicized, the grex is not. When a plant represents a unique cultivar of a grex, the cultivar name is listed following the grex name in single quotation marks. Awards may be listed after the cultivar name. For example, in the name Cattleya Porcia ‘Cannizaro’, FCC/AOS, Cattleya is the genus, Porcia is the grex, ‘Cannizaro’ is the cultivar, and FCC/AOS is the award it received.
HYBRID ORCHIDS TO TRY To conclude with a list of recommended hybrids seems appropriate, but it is difficult to narrow more than 120,000 possibilities down to a handful. As I contemplated my suggestions, I realized that I was falling back on the same favorites that I promote time and again.
As I am in Florida at the time of this writing, I decided to recruit some other growers for fresh ideas. At a meeting of the Ft. Lauderdale Orchid Society I had sheets of paper available where members could write their recommended hybrids.
The results, shown to the right, were interesting. The list of about 50 hybrids is overwhelmingly slanted to the Cattleya alliance, which represents more than half of the number. Perhaps that should not be surprising, because many hobby growers were first attracted to orchids through that group. Plus, South Florida is an area where many cattleyas thrive.
Quite a few hybrids on the list have been around for many years. Several, such as Ascocenda Yip Sum Wah (Vanda Pukele × Ascocentrum miniatum) or Paphiopedilum Hellas (Desdemona × Tania) would be regarded as cornerstones in orchid breeding. Just one phalaenopsis was offered. There are so many good hybrids of easy culture in that genus that all one has to do is pick a favorite based on appearance.
Although there are a couple of hybrids on the list with which I am unfamiliar, a number of my own nominees were included by others. These suggestions do not necessarily represent the prettiest, the most available, or the newest of orchid hybrids, although some may qualify against those standards. Most of these, however, are generally regarded to be of easy culture. Certainly one needs to keep in mind that South Florida’s growing conditions are reflected in the mix. Most orchid growers there cultivate their plants outdoors and the conditions favor warm-growing types.
I invite you to compare your ideas of good orchid hybrids with this list. If you have additional suggestions, send those to me via e-mail. If there is sufficient response, I will compile those for a future article. Please include your name, where you live, how you grow your orchids (e.g., windowsills, greenhouse) and please be sure to put Orchid Hybrid in the subject line of your e-mail.