Tuesday, 19 March 2013

Back from the dead

Ghost orchids, those rare blooms famous for their mystic white petals, have never been bred in greenhouses.

Manic fans have even attempted to grow them using a procedure akin to in vitro fertilisation. Many are hunted illegally. Keith Davis, who graduated from NCSU in 1979, has discovered how to grow and protect the endangered flower.

His passion started when he bought a dozen specimens for a dollar each at a local sale to fill a greenhouse at Corpus Christi  Texas. All 12 orchids died within a few weeks.

He got the bug, especially for ghost orchids, those ethereal white orchids have no leaves. It is the the roots that contain chlorophyll to perform photosynthesis. Keep the roots above ground and they will thrive. 

Ghost orchids are found growing on the sides of trees. Experts regard them as epiphytic, not parasitic. A parasite feeds off of the host for nutrients while epiphytes use the host for support.

Mr Davis pursued the ghost orchid, which is so rare, that obtaining seeds is difficult, and even then, the process might not work. But he had an epiphany. If something grows in nature, there has to be a reason. Find it, apply it, and you can unlock the secret.

During long periods of dry weather, the ghost orchid grows naturally. The roots are buried in moss and lichen on the host tree. As he says: ‘I later discovered that this dry period is vital to getting the plants to bloom.’

How long did that take to find out? Orchidmaniacs wouldn't care; they would just applaud.

He chose his host plant, the mockernut hickory, not just because of the delightful name, but because it was durable and it wouldn’t rot. Spanish moss assisted in formed a  micro-environment around the roots to survive the difficult first year. Other hurdles were overcome but Mr Davis won an American Orchid Society society competition. Check out a recent article.

And some orchid kudos.