What is a backcross?

June 2nd, 2013 by paphinessorchids No comments »

The term “backcross” is a genetic term that refers to the progeny from a cross (i.e., a breeding event) being bred back to a parent or ancestor.  So you can have two original parents, let’s call them Pa and Pb, that you breed together [Pa x Pb].  They produce progeny (i.e., children), which is called the F1 generation.  Now, if you take one of these F1 individuals and breed it with one of the P parents, you would be doing a backcross.  We can call these products of the [F1 x P] backcross as F2 (note: the terms F1 and F2 are not terms specific to backcrosses but refer to subsequent generations of breeding from starting P parents).  You can continue this backcrossing by crossing F2 progeny back to the original parents [F2 x P] to produce an F3 generation.  And on and on…

So why do a backcross?  In agriculture, horticulture, and animal breeding, backcrosses are performed in order to reinforce a desired trait.  In the case of orchids, this is usually color or size.

With Phrag. besseae, much backcrossing has been done to produce hybrids with different shades of red.  To use a painting analogy, you could start with a certain red color, and mix it with another non-red base color in equal quantity.  From this resulting mix, you’d mix back again in equal quantities with the original red color.  Of course you’d achieve a different shade of red.  You could keep repeating this until you get just the shade of red you want, but eventually, you’ll dilute out your other original base color, and end up with something almost indistinguishable from the original red.


The Genghis Khan of Phrag. besseae, Part 2

May 27th, 2013 by paphinessorchids No comments »

(This is Part 2 of 2.  Read Part 1 here.)

The discovery of besseae in 1981 was a big deal in the history of slipper orchids, since all the other known species showed flowers of generally subdued colors.  The intense red of besseae meant that breeders now had a potent addition to their color palette. Mastering besseae growth took some time, however, but a number of growers began growing the species, with the Orchid Zone being among the most successful.


Just a small sampling of besseaes at OZ

All of this is generally known amongst people who follow this stuff.  But what few people know is that besseae breeders, whether they realized it or not, were breeding themselves into a dead end. For a species to improve, a breeder has got to select the best specimens they can find, and breed on with those specimens, since they contain some superior variation in their genetic code (i.e., DNA).  Since sex/breeding has a built in random gene shuffling mechanism to produce variation, you’d expect some variants to come out of a typical crop.  Well, the reality is sometimes you do, and sometimes you don’t.  It depends on how many plants you can get out of a crop.  In many cases of breeding, without injection of “fresh” DNA from outside your gene pool, you end up repeating your results and eventually inbreeding to the point where undesirable traits come through, and then those undesirables become what you have to work with.  (This has certainly happened more than once in the royal houses of Europe.)

But what very few people know is how much of the beauty of modern line-bred besseae derive from just a single plant, the unsung Posada clone.  Terry Root told me the inside story of how Orchid Zone besseae were propelled forward.  Terry had a friend, Mr. Hamilton, who visited Juan Felipe Posada, an orchid grower from Colombia.  Mr. Posada had an outstanding wild-collected besseae that was far superior to anything else he’d seen, and gave pollen to Mr. Hamilton who brought it back to the Orchid Zone, along with many accolades about the plant.  So pollen from the Posada plant started making the stud rounds, and a couple of years later, the F1 first-generation plants (F means “filial”, by the way; the numeral following refers to the number of generations from the original parental cross) produced exciting results, including ‘Colossal’, ‘Big Bob’, and ‘Big Boy’.  The best of these F1 were crossed and the best of those successive crosses bred forward, which brings us to the present day at OZ, where you can easily find intensely colored, beautifully formed blooms approaching 8 cm NS everywhere you look.  Here’s an example:

Proud Posada descendant

I would bet that all commercially available besseae bred today carry the genes from the Posada plant, and it’s easy to see why.  Keep in mind, though, that genes conferring superior traits are important, but only part of the story.  The breeder also has to select for the best to continue breeding with.  In the case of Genghis Khan’s descendants, I believe that those far-flung families/tribes carrying his genes did not easily lose sight of the value of their bloodlines, and took every advantage conferred by their fiercesome ancestry as they married off their sons and daughters.  That’s how human breeding selection worked in those days…

So what would happen if you were to put the original Posada plant in the middle of a blooming crop of its descendants?  You wouldn’t even give it a second glance.  This magnificent plant’s progeny have no doubt utterly surpassed their ancestor.  But that’s absolutely the way it should be in breeding.

The Genghis Khan of Phrag. besseae breeding, Part 1

May 27th, 2013 by paphinessorchids No comments »

In breeding for anything, you look for specimens of the best genetics in order to infuse your breeding line with the traits you wish to amplify and propagate.

This is true with dog breeding, cat breeding, horse breeding, pigeon breeding, and for those believers in eugenics, human breeding, too (q.v. Aryan Master Race).  The genes from an individual or a “founder colony” can have huge effects in future generations.  It is estimated that, in the USA, 25% of the population can trace their ancestry back to one of the 102 colonists from the Mayflower.  Even today, certain families take great pride in being able to claim an ancestor from the Mayflower, or even the ill-fated original Jamestown colony.

For those of Asian or Middle Eastern extraction, I read that Y chromosome tracing shows that one in 200 men can trace their descent from Genghis Khan.  If you are a man with this Y chromosome, you are a direct male descendant of the great conqueror, since the Y chromosome is passed from father to son directly.  Genghis Khan’s conquered many places, and to the conqueror go the spoils of war, which of course in those days included nubile females.  Given how widespread Genghis Khan’s Y chromosome is spread throughout Asia, the Middle East, and even parts of Eastern Europe, it had to have been the case that those who claimed direct descent from the conqueror had a reproductive advantage.  Yes, Genghis Khan himself bedded many women, but his early descendants must have gotten busy breeding or the geographic distribution of his genes as we see them today would have been practically impossible to achieve.  In other words, being descended from Khan meant that you could hook up with the chicks easier.  Not surprising, really.


Genghis Khan — super stud
“My genes are better than yours”

So what does all this have to do with Phragmipedium besseae?  Read on in Part 2!



What makes a paph worth a lot? Part 2

May 25th, 2013 by paphinessorchids No comments »

The most I’ve ever heard of a paph selling for was around $75,000.  Yep, seventy-five thousand bucks.  It was for a hangianum alba, bought by a collector in Taiwan.  Seventy-five grand for a plant?  I was astonished at the amount, but I suppose I shouldn’t have been.  These amounts are all relative to the wealth and desire of the individual collector.  A common refrain I hear is, “A hundred dollars for a plant?”  Or even “Fifty dollars for a plant?”

So why do paphs cost so much?

Like anything else, it’s supply and demand.  Cheap phalaenopsis plants have flooded the market, but why haven’t cheap paphs?  Well, phals can be cloned on a massive commercial scale, while paphs can’t.  The only way to clone a paph is by dividing it, and as a commercial strategy, it just takes too long.

phalaenopsis in pot

Cheap Phalaenopsis market-flooding clone

You can still find buyers willing to pay several thousands of dollars for a super prize-winning phal, but the reason is that they are commercial growers looking to clone the plant and mass produce them.  Since no one knows how to do that for paphs, prices stay high for prized specimens.  It’s like collecting anything else: people want what no one else has.

That’s what makes collecting paphs so darn cool.

What makes a paph flower worth a lot? Part 1

June 17th, 2012 by paphinessorchids No comments »

I remember the first time I was quoted a price of $1000 for a paph.

It was at the Orchid Zone, and the master breeder himself, Terry Root, quoted me a cool grand on a large, round, white flower.  Its pearly appearance and perfect symmetry seemed so unreal, as if a great sculptor had fashioned the flower out of living alabaster.  Although I had only entered the slipper orchid world recently at the time, I knew enough not to act like a gobsmacked newbie (which I was, of course), so I played it cool and just said, “Oh, hmmm…” as nonchalantly as I could.

Up to that point, I had thought $50 was really, really expensive for…well, just a plant!  I mean, who would pay that much for something that could die the next day?

As I learned more on my orchid odyssey, I discovered that there are, indeed, a great many people willing to pay quite substantial sums for “just a plant”.(1)  And in due time, I became one of them.  (I also became one of those who ended up killing plants that had cost a substantial sum, too.)

But the point of this series of posts is not to plumb the convoluted depths of orchid collector psychology.  We can get into that some other time.  I thought I would share here the physical flower characteristics that drive the value of paphs.  I hope that, having been on the receiving and giving end of some high price quotes for incredibly beautiful slipper orchid specimens, you’ll be able to understand what is quality (and valuable) and what is not.

The easiest thing to examine are flower shape characteristics.  Some of these characteristics apply mainly to complex hybrids or brachys, and may seem obvious to people who have grown and bloomed out slippers for awhile.  But some folks have never been informed on these matters, and some (even orchid judges!) don’t have a clue.

Here is a pic of a very nice P. niveum, which we will “dissect” as we examine it in further detail:


1) Dorsal roundness

The shape of the dorsal should approach circularity.  This can sometimes be hard to tell from a 2D picture, but definitely something to look for if you can examine a flower in person.  ”Cuppy” or overly hooded dorsals are less desirable.  Nevertheless, breeders can tolerate imperfections in one area so long as other areas make up any deficiencies.  Of course, the confluence of highly desirable traits in one flower/plant pushes up the value substantially.

2) Petal roundness

Petal roundness might be even more important than dorsal roundness, since a flower only has one dorsal, but has TWO petals.  Again, the rounder, the better.  You can see that this P. niveum falls a bit short of perfect roundness, but keep in mind that the angle of the photo can account for a bit of foreshortening in the picture and the petals, if pulled back, could get closer to the round ideal.  Not bad for a first-time bloom — a second blooming could result in even better form.

Obviously, petal roundness doesn’t apply to species or hybrids where the petals extend straight out (e.g., rothschildianum) or dangle downwards (e.g., sanderianum) – they will have their own criteria.

3) Overall roundness

In this picture you can see the emphasis on the overall roundness of a flower.  So when you’re evaluating a paph of this type, take a step back and consider the circularity of the whole flower.

Note also that in niveum the sepal does not extend below the pouch.  In complex hybrids, however, a well-formed sepal below the pouch contributes substantially to the overall roundness of the flower.

4) Dorsal width

The width of the dorsal (also called Dorsal Spread) counts for a lot.  The wider the dorsal, the more valuable the flower: better looking, better breeding.  Also, the flatness of the dorsal is critical.  Parents with big, flat dorsals command higher prices, since reflexing (when the edges bend backwards) means that less flower surface area faces the viewer.

5) Petal width

The principle of maximum flower area applies doubly to the petals, since each flower has two of them.  The sum of the petal widths is known as Natural Spread (a.k.a. “wingspan”).

6) Petal height

The vertical height of the petal definitely drives the price tremendously.  In some species, like Phrag. besseae, for example, just 1 mm can make the difference between a plant priced at $100 and a plant priced at $500+.  In bigger flowers, such as complex hybrids, a couple of millimeters difference in petal height can make an even bigger difference.

7) Petal slope

This one is not so commonly known, but is one of the first things I look for, especially from a breeding perspective.  What you want is a steep slope in the edge of the petal that originates from the center of the flower.  The steeper the slope, the fuller the petal will be.  You want this steepness to carry forward in breeding, as you’ll get more progeny with large petals and more flower area.

Of course, there are other characteristics underlying the price of slipper orchids, which we will get to in a future post…

(1) Unfortunately for me, about 98% of these people live in Japan.


New night-blooming orchid makes Top Ten List of new species

May 24th, 2012 by paphinessorchids No comments »

A new species discovered on the island of New Britain in Papua New Guinea has just landed on Arizona State University’s Top Ten List of new species.  Bulbophyllum nocturnum is an orchid that blooms only at night, and its flower closes up around 12 hours later.  It joins this top ten list comprised of other bizarre creatures, such as a sneezing monkey, a walking cactus, a blue spider, and an amazingly colored jellyfish.  I’m glad that orchids can represent with the even the strangest of organisms.

Bulbophyllum nocturnum

Bulbophyllum nocturnum

Apparently all that is known about this species derives from one plant in cultivation in the Hortus Botanicus, in Leiden, a city in the Netherlands.  The Hortus Botanicus is one of the oldest botanical gardens in the world, having been established in the 1590s!

This Bulbophyllum is being grown under the following conditions:

In the Hortus Botanicus, Leiden, this species has proved easy to cultivate in a warm greenhouse, along with other tropical lowland orchids. The plant is grown on a slab of compressed coconut fibre, kept in light shade and watered regularly by spraying all year round.

Hmm, I wonder how long it will be before this species finds itself into the hands of collectors?  I’m guessing not too long, as I suppose that Bulbo collectors are about as rabid a lot as slipper aficionados, and surely some obsessed collector will be off into the jungle soon to find this new plant.  That would certainly be the case with a new slipper orchid discovery.

You can find out more about this strange new orchid here at the Kew Gardens page for this species.


Getting rid of chloramines — it’s working

May 22nd, 2012 by paphinessorchids 2 comments »

I did another test of the chloramine content in my water, both before and after passage through my carbon filter. You do the test by taking your water sample and adding a powder (DPD) that changes color in the presence of chlorine, then measuring the intensity of the color change with a colorimeter.  I use the Hanna 711, which seems to do a good job.  Other kits let you estimate chlorine content by matching up the color of your water sample by eye with a calibrated color chart, where different gradations of color correspond to the amount of chlorine.  Here’s the result:


Hanna 711 Colorimeter and chloramine color change

The vial on the right is the baseline water straight from the tap, no filtration.  Adding the DPD chemical caused a huge color change, so there must’ve been a lot of chloramine/chlorine in the water.  In fact, the measurement was 1.78 ppm.  (If you read my initial post, a prior baseline measurement was 0.47 ppm, so maybe the water company recently added some chloramine to the water.)

The vial on the left is the treated water.  You can still see a hint of red, so there was some chloramine/chlorine in the water.  The measurement actually came to 0.04 ppm, which is a 98% reduction!  I would’ve preferred ZERO ppm, but I think this is a level I can live with for now.

What were they thinking?!?

May 21st, 2012 by paphinessorchids No comments »

It is often amusing and vicariously infuriating to read stories about how the early European orchid growers (i.e., the fabulously rich aristocracy) grew their orchids in all the wrong conditions.  It seems that in those days it was a “one size fits all” approach with everything being put into a hothouse environment.  Hmm, that probably describes a lot of people’s methods, maybe even yours?  But at least you’ve got a fan to cool down some of your plants, right?

Of course, back in the day, there were no local orchid societies, few orchid books, and probably jealously protected horticultural knowledge.  Nowadays, of course, we’ve got just the opposite problem: a superabundance of rumor and anecdotes masquerading as knowledge.  Uhh, except for this blog…

I can understand the early cultivation mistakes.  Everyone, rich and poor, the manor born and the common, the mighty and the meek, all go through a learning curve in growing these addictive plants.  I don’t fault the early orchid growers for their errors one bit.  What I do fault them for is how they got the orchids to their hothouses.  I fully understand that the orchid collecting business was ultra-competitive, with Indiana Jones-type collectors sent on missions to gather the rarest orchids at the far reaches of the planet.  With the competition being so stiff, these collectors sometimes used literal scorched-earth policies to prevent their competitors from finding the location of a prized orchid.

No, what puzzles me is how they packed the plants for shipment to Europe.  The famous early orchid expert, Jean Jules Linden described this unfortunate situation:

The Orchids, once collected, difficulties began.  It was necessary to bring them down from the mountains to the port of embarkation by roads which cannot be imagined by any who have not traversed them.  At that time no steamboat had yet crossed the ocean, and the poor plants had to endure the sea-voyage at the bottom of the hold of a rough sailing vessel, after having waited, sometimes during more than a month, for a chance of carriage to a port…  Packed like herring in a barrel, the heat and fermentation worked sad havoc, and but few of them arrived alive.

What were they thinking?  Some of those early collectors no doubt risked life and limb for their big orchid haul, so why did they force the plants to endure such awful conditions?  Everyone involved must have known that out of a cargo hold stuffed with (fermenting!) orchids, very, very few would survive.  So what drove them to strip the land of these plants, only to kill the vast majority en route to the European hothouses, where those few that survived the journey would be reduced in number even further?

The only things that I can think of are bragging rights?  Money?  Actually, I guess that’s not so surprising.  Doing crazy, irrational stuff for orchids has been par for the course for over 200 years.


How to tell the difference between micranthum and armeniacum — without even looking

May 19th, 2012 by paphinessorchids No comments »

One of these is an armeniacum leaf and the other is a micranthum leaf.  Can you tell just by looking?

Which is micranthum and which is armeniacum?

For any parvi lover, distinguishing between these two species when the plants are not in bloom can be very useful skill.  Someday you may find yourself hiking in the hinterlands of China, and come across a new batch of parvi plants not in bloom.  Of course you’re not going to rip them out of the ground (are you??), although the thought may cross your mind.  So how can you tell if you’ve stumbled upon a colony of armeniacums or micranthums?

Well, I recently discovered that there is a way to distinguish between these two species without even looking at the leaves.

I owe a big thank you to my fellow orchid enthusiast “CHH” in the San Jose area for teaching me this very cool orchid skill that does not require a blindfold, just the fingers on your hand.

It turns out that P. armeniacum has very fine serrations on the edge of its leaves that you can feel with your fingertip.  P. micranthum does not, and will feel smooth to the touch.

So the answer is that the bottom plant is the armeniacum.  Actually, you can tell by looking at the picture (click to see a larger version).  You’ll notice the fine serrations on the armeniacum leaf.  Try it the next time you get one of these!

Carbon filter reduces chloramines by nearly 25X

May 17th, 2012 by paphinessorchids No comments »

To remove the chloramines from my greenhouse water, I put a plain vanilla carbon filter (~$20) in-line with my watering system, which is basically just a dilution injector for fertilizers connected to my hose.  I had previously measured 0.47 ppm total chlorine in my water, and after running the water through one carbon filter, the total chlorine level dropped to 0.02 ppm, a big drop!

Two issues here, though:

1) Even 0.02 ppm could be problematic, although I strongly doubt it.  It’s not like tons of plants were keeling over after receiving this chloraminated water for a couple of years, after all.

2) Just because I measured 0.47 ppm chloramines in my water the other day doesn’t mean that it’s always at that level.  The city’s water company website said that the chloramine level had been sampled at over 1 ppm.  So it could be the case that just one plain vanilla carbon filter may not be enough to handle higher chloramine concentrations.

Good thing my filtration unit has room for yet another carbon filter!

Having said all that, it’s still not clear at all whether chloramine reduction will improve growth or not.  That remains to be seen.  But if I may take off my science hat for a moment, I will say that I do feel better