Friday, March 18, 2011

Blue Orchids... and Mustard?!

Colman's Mustard...
and orchids?
What does mustard have to do with orchids? According to Nollie Cilliers from Plantae, who gave last night's EPOS talk, quite a lot. It turns out that Sir Jeremiah Colman, who built up the business bearing his name, had a passion for orchids and was determined to try and make blue orchid hybrids. His successful mustard empire gave him the financial resources to build some of the most advanced orchid-growing greenhouses in Britain at the time, where he maintained something like 30,000 adult orchids and some 20,000 orchid seedlings...! This took place at Gatton Park Manor, which he purchased in 1888, where he also bred cattle (hence the bull on the mustard bottle!). Colman went on to conduct probably the first intensive and successful blue orchid hybridising programme, and his crosses laid the foundation for many of the blues we have today. He wrote a book on his experiences in hybridising orchids. The hybrid nothogenus Colmanara is named after him, as are numerous crosses and species. Sadly, most of his breeding lines were lost in the chaos and austerity that happened during World War Two and thereafter, but some of the hybrids have since been re-made; apparently he gave his entire orchid collection to the University of Cambridge's botanic gardens in 1933, where presumably WWII took its toll.

Nollie went on to describe the continuing quest for blue orchids - specifically blue Cattleya Alliance orchids - briefly covering the biochemical basis for orchid colours (anthocyanins and anthoxanthins), the role of intracellular pH on flower colour (explaining colour shift with flower age), and that intracellular pH was governed by about 5 genes, making it an extremely tricky quality to adjust through selective breeding and hybridisation.

Colman's State-of-the-Art Glasshouses at Gatton Park
From Gatton Park Archive
As usual in orchid slide shows, we were treated to a visual smorgasbord of ancestral orchid species (many "coerulea" forms) and the resulting hybrids, and to some of the history behind the quest for "true blue" Cattleyas. For some reason, "true blue" orchids are considered impossible (at least, outside the world of artificially colouring the flower, as it done in some Dendrobium and Phalaenopsis, or genetically engineering "true blue" into them). As far as I can tell, the reason for the lack of "true blue"  is that orchids (and a host of other plants) don't produce a particular pigment called delphinidin which is apparently responsible for "true blue" in other plants. If you're interested in blue in orchids, Orchid Board has a long thread about it - well worth a few minutes of your time.

And from what I saw last night, "true blue" is pretty elusive in this Alliance; plenty of flowers got quite close, but they were always a bit purple or lilac or some similar "I'm a man and I have no idea what that colour is called, but it's not blue". OOAB's better half declared that perhaps some Cattleya weren't all that bad - and that they photographed poorly. We'd previously agreed they were trying a bit too hard to be fancy, and prefer less "showy" flowers on the whole.

Somewhat predictably, Cattleyas yet again walked away with the plant table prizes; one was a stunning red miniature grown by Cattleya enthusiast Sean, which won two prizes. Sean spent a few minutes chatting to us last night and invited us to stop by his greenhouse next time we were in PE - thanks for the invitation! Our plant table effort was our Stenoglottis, which an Orchid Board member pointed out was named Ganymede - so we now have a name for it beside its hybrid ancestry.

I could hardly pass up the opportunity to acquire some more orchids from Plantae, so we returned home with four new plants - apparently, I was the only person from the society to order a blue orchid from them, despite Nollie conveniently highlighting all the blue Cattleya Alliance plants in their price list! We've now added a Maxillaria tenuifolia (yay, coconut fragrance!), Mediocalar decoratum (cute miniature), Dendrobium unicum (another cute miniature with great yellow flowers) and, in honour of the talk, the aforementioned "blue" - Laelia sincorana f. coerulea. It was pretty hard to keep the order down to just four plants, but under strict instructions to only order two, I didn't think I'd push my luck... :) I'll post over the weekend with pics of these plants - as usual, great packaging and healthy plants.

Thanks, Nollie!