Sunday, February 13, 2011

Why orchids used to be more rare and expensive

Another blog about orchids in history? Be glad I’m not blogging about my other obsession - reptiles, especially snakes. I love snakes. I’m weird. What can I say?

So, now that I’ve thoroughly creeped you out, let’s get back to the world’s most exotic, erotic, romantic flowers - orchids. First, let’s clear up some misconceptions. There are no black orchids. You can send your Victorian adventurer off to search for one, if you want, but he/she won’t find one. Also, orchids aren’t parasites. Many types grow on trees, and their roots cling to the bark to hang on, but they don’t harm the trees except, maybe, by weighing them down.

Please note: For the rest of this blog, I’ll be referring to the cattleya orchid for two reasons. 1) there are around 30,000 species of orchids, and nothing I say could be true about all of them, 2) the cattleya, or “corsage,” orchid is the one most familiar to the general public, and perhaps, the most beautiful.

We hear stories of orchid plants so exceedingly rare they were worth thousands of dollars, and yet today, we often see them at the garden center and even the supermarket for under $30. Is there a contradiction there? Actually, no. Modern science has made what used to be unique and extravagant quite common.

Orchid seeds used to be almost impossible to germinate. They’re tiny and only can establish themselves in the presence of symbiotic fungi. These days, horticulturists “plant” seeds in sterile flasks with nutrients suspended in liquid. As the tiny, tiny plantlets grow, they’re transplanted several times into other flasks and only after a year or more are put into pots. Before the latter half of the 20th century, all a grower could do was pollinate a plant in the hopes that, of the thousands of almost-microscopic seeds, one might fall into just the right situation in the pot and grow into a plant. Then, the grower would have to wait years for the new plant to bloom to see if he had a truly magnificent flower or only a ho-hum one.

Because, you see, not all orchids are created equal - not even orchids that originate in the same seed pod. In order to explain, I’ll have to science-geek-out for a moment. Please, pardon me.

Orchids have a high chromosome count - almost as high as the number humans do. As a result, orchid siblings vary as much as human brothers and sisters do. You know the scenario. One of the brothers is drop-dead-gorgeous, and while the other one resembles his handsome sib, he’s not nearly as good looking. For the sake of discussion, let’s call them Jim and George. Your heart goes pitty-pat when in the presence of Jim. George you love as a friend, even though you aren’t IN love with him.

For just this reason, truly beautiful orchid plants get their own individual names. I’m not kidding you. Cattleya intermedia ‘Jim’ is highly desirable, while cattleya intermedia ‘George’ is not so much. Owning just any cattleya intermedia isn’t good enough for a true connoisseur. You need to own cattleya intermedia ’Jim.’

But there is only one Jim, and given how hard it is to get more cattleya intermedias by any name, Jims is doubly valuable. To get a new plant, you can spend large amounts of money to get an orchid hunter to find you one in the wild. Because cattleyas are New World plants, that would involve paying for an expedition to the Americas. Or you can pollinate the plant you have in your greenhouse and hope you get someone as gorgeous as Jim and not just a bunch of Georges.

In either case, you have no guarantee of the worth of the flower you’re getting. If you want to get a piece of the Jim you already know exists, your only hope there is to talk Jim’s owner into dividing him (essentially taking a cutting) and selling you a piece at a Truly Astronomical Price.

These days, modern science can clone hundreds of little Jims, and you can order one from a supplier for under $50. But you can see that when Lord Whatsizname had a precious orchid in his Victorian hothouse why it was such an investment.

Let me conclude by saying that I put orchids in almost all of my books. They feature in a scene in Miss Foster’s Folly and will play an even bigger role in Always a Princess, due out from Carina this August. I don’t put snakes into my books, so you’re safe.


Patricia Preston said...

I didn't know there wasn't a black orchid. Mostly the only orchids I've seen are on corsages, especially on Mother's Day.

Taryn Kincaid said...

There are no black orchids? But they figure in so much literature. I thought they were rare, not non-existent. Nice blog post. You've given me an idea for mine!

Wendy Soliman said...

I didn't know there were no black orchids, either. Nor did I realise that they're parasites. Well, those sort of parasites I can handle.

Claire Robyns said...

No black orchids? But we can still pretend, right, in the name of fiction?