Monday, November 14, 2011

Hilltop Hints

Cute Kitties Posing with Fallen Phrag Flower
I mentioned in the last post that I was like a kid on Christmas when my Phrag. Eumelia Arias bloomed. It was a big event in the Cats and Catts house. I took it from an aspiring seedling to its full glory, and the timing appeared to be perfect. Dick Wells from Hilltop Orchids visited our orchid society on Sunday and I intended to show him the success I've had with one of his hybrids. So, of course, the flower decided to fall off Sunday morning. Drat!

I didn't get to show off my Phrag. (well, I brought the fallen flower), but the visit was outstanding nonetheless. Dick Wells shared his vast wisdom with us, gave a potting demonstration, and talked specifically about cultivating Phrag. kovachii hybrids. Here are some highlights:

Rice hulls are the New Perlite The cost of perlite is soaring, leaving orchid vendors searching for alternatives. Rice hulls dry out at a nice and even rate, and Hilltop has had great success incorporating rice hulls into their standard potting media. You can purchase their mix here. Also, sells bags of rice hulls.

Epsom salts for the kovachii hybrids Use 2-2.5 Tbs per gallon. Wells recommends spraying the plants with it every 2-3 months (I've used it successfully as a monthly drench). Using it with a fertilizer, however, will nullify the benefit (the plant can only use so much magnesium sulfate at any one time).

You're Probably Over-Potting Well, I am at least. I've been too squeamish about damaging the roots. I didn't think I was over-potting until I saw Dick give a little demonstration on four or five plants. The roots need even less space than I imagine. The crew at Hilltop Orchids repot 500 to 600 orchids a day, so I trust Dick's judgment.

I drove home with a couple of new plants -- Phrag. Fritz Schomberg and Phal. equestris var. alba. -- and several new ideas for improving my orchid culture.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Phrag Fabulous

Phrag. Eumelia Arias
I'm thrilled with the first bloom from my Phrag. Eumelia Arias (kovachii x schlimii), originally featured in Cats and Catts on February 21 2010. I bought it from Hilltop Orchids -- you can buy one for yourself here. It was like Christmas morning when it opened, and I have no problem looking right past its flaws to admire its sparkling ruby color. It might sound a little psychotic, but this plant has occupied my thoughts for nearly two years. Here are a few reasons why:

Sabine w/ Phrag & its original container
 1. It's a high-maintenance plant and, therefore, it's extra gratifying to see in bloom. It's fussy. I drench it with reverse-osmosis water three or four times a week, and the plant receives other perks (dissolved epsom salts once a month and crushed oyster shells four times a year). The need to water it frequently leads me to catch pests and culture problems early. In fact, my tendency to over-water has been stunningly success with this plant. A wet Phragmipedium is a happy Phragmipedium.

2. One of Eumelia Arias's parent species, Phrag. kovachii, has a fascinating history. The 2001 discovery of Phrag. kovachii was monumental for the orchid community: the flowers had a deep purple color no one had seen before (opening up a new world of hybridization possibilities) and its flowers were huge. But the drive to be the first to import and describe the new species led to dodgy behavior. Its Western discoverer, Michael Kovach, faced thousands of dollars in fines for illegally smuggling the plant from Peru into the US. The late Eric Christenson was inches away from writing the first description of it, but Kovach and the Selby Botanical Garden bum rushed the taxon, and so now we call it Phrag. kovachii (instead of peruviana). Big discovery. Big controversy.

3. Finally, the flower is super gorgeous and it has a diamond dusting look that's inadequately captured in the photos. It's stare-worthy.

All in all, it's a highly satisfying orchid. I definitely see more Phrags in my future.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Attack of the Phylogeneticists!

Ceci n'est pas une Ondontoglossum
If you own any Odontoglossums it's time to change the tag. Molecular phylogeneticists have, once more, unleashed their cladograms on the orchid community. New DNA studies show that Odontoglossums are not meaningfully distinct from Oncidiums in terms of genetics and evolution. The Royal Horticultural Society (RHC) has decreed that Odontoglossums are now Oncidiums. The RHC creates the official taxonomical reality for the American orchid world (institutionalized in the American Orchid Society). So, we now change our tags from Ond. to Onc. No big deal, right?

But what if you're, say, Robert Hamilton, a founding member of the International Ondontoglossum Alliance? What if you've been obsessed with Odonts since 1979? The change might irritate you a little bit. 

Hamilton's article in the new issue of Orchid Digest "Odonotoglossum: Requiescat in Pace" traces the genus's history from its first description in 1816 to its recent demise. Hamilton acknowledges phylogenetics as "valid science," but raises three concerns. The lumping and splitting required of any taxonomical distinction, whether its based on DNA or not, is, ultimately, arbitrary. The DNA relationships ("clades") proposed by the phylogeneticists can result in infinite regress, such that the distinction between humans and chimps (Homo and Pan) falls away. Finally, the decision to lump Odontoglossum into the genus Oncidium fails the "five-year-old test" wherein a child can point to obvious differences between two flowers.

The "DNA Boys" (as Patricia Harding has referred to them) have prompted the orchid community to endure a lot of nomenclature changes in the last 10 or so years, and these changes have generate a lot of unbridled hatred toward taxonomists. But is it warranted?

I received poor marks in school for science and math, but I've seen the movie "Real Genius" enough to feel qualified to comment boldly on scientific disputes. The plot of Martha Coolidge's hit 1985 comedy suggests that you should side with the kids, in this case, the DNA Kids and their Crazy Cladograms. The phylogeneticists aren't setting out to ruin our favorite hobby. They proceed from the simple fact that some orchid species evolved before other orchid species. Discovering and analyzing patterns among those evolutionary relationships might, in the long run, help us grow better and healthier orchids.