The corner of my workshop is lit by fluorescent tubes keeping alive a collection of orchid in sterile jars. Behind me is a large home-built sterile air cabinet that I use to work on them. Now, doubtless you think I have some strange ‘Frankenstein’ thing going on, and are hurriedly moving onto another web page to read so I think I’d better explain in more depth! (And this is going to take some explaining!)
Many years ago I was involved in importing and selling orchid plants, which I eventually gave up because I was fed up of not earning any money and I was unhappy how a lot of the plants were obtained and policed. That’s a whole post on it’s own, and not a pretty one! Nuff to say it left a very sour taint to the whole idea of even growing them for myself for very many years afterwards.
I had to ‘let go’ of some very amazing plants (I still kick myself over a couple) for the basic need to pay bills at the time, and it was my other ‘arf who encouraged me to get a couple of plants again. Although I did, the one thing I never cracked when I was growing to sell was raising them for seed, and had/have a huge amount of lab equipment for the job. It was something I still wanted to achieve, plus it means as I know where the seed comes from then nothing needs to be destroyed or taken from the wild, plus I can then put some ethically grown plants back into the orchid growing community.
Now you won’t find much orchid seed in the garden centre for good reason; it doesn’t work like normal seeds – i.e. you sprinkle it and plants grow! Firstly the seeds are like dust, and have no food reserves. Instead they have to fall in just the right place and meet up with just the right fungus. The fungal spores then infect the seed, using the microscopic case as protection. As the fungus grows it gives out nutrients that the seed can use to grow. If the fungus grows too quickly it kills the plant and it’s home and dies, and visa versa!
So instead of chucking it into a pot and hoping one in a few million seeds survive to adulthood (which is how orchids get round the problem, by having millions of seeds) in 1950’s a technique was developed to get around the problem. By making a nutrient broth of all the goodies that come out of the fungus and popping the seed on top of that a lot of the element of chance was reduced. Seedlings could be produced in thousands rather than dozens, very good news for rare and endangered plants.
BUT (of course there has to be a but!) BUT the nutrient jelly contains a lot of sugar, which many fungus and bacteria like too! And they grow in hours not years! So all of the seed, the jars, the nutrients even the AIR has to be sterile as even one spore getting in will ruin the contents.
For this I built a 6ft long by 3x3ft sterile air cabinet that uses an huge HEPA air filter that blows 99.6% clean air at me whilst opening jars that I’ve sterilized in a pressure cooker (on the kitchen hob for 18mins!) This is really not fun, as ontop of this everything is wiped down with virtually neat detol, and after an hours work that’s all I can smell for the next few days, not to mention the industrial bleach used! It wasn’t too bad when you started doing it, but now it’s turned into one of those chores to be avoided.
Last week I had a binge and transferred a lot of plants that needed moving into bigger jars (or flasks as they are called), on average most seed takes 6-8 weeks before they germinate and change to tiny dots of green (and I do mean dots!!!!) Then many monts later the dots turn into tiny plants which need separating out into large jars with more space, and so one for about 2 years on average. A lot of time, and a lot of washing up! I spend more time washing jars than re-plating them! I have some bottles made for the job, but these days I tend to recycle all sorts of old small jam jars.
Doing all this suddenly increased the amount of jars in use, so to make some room I popped a couple on Ebay. I was amazed at the interest, it’s not many people who have the time & inclination to spend another 3 or so years getting them to flowering size! I was really stunned as my past Ebay sales were all flops from lack of interest! I shall have to pull my finger out and do some more now, as I realise it’s an untapped potential source of money that I can use to buy more glass and tools!
In the meantime here’s a picture of Aerathes grandiflora, one of my few bought plants rather than a seed-swap. It’s got amazing sculptural flowers, it’s from Madagascar where it’s normally pollinated by moths. In this case it was pollinated by me about a year ago and I did my first transplant last week. However I didn’t get much seed out of this one, and the biggest ones are only 1-2cm tall (the flower here is 6-8inchs!) so it’ll be a good few years before I get to flower my own home-sown ones!