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.