Hybrid orchids and pure passion Gathering: Romance, science and enthusiasm meet at annual event.

November 16, 1996|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,SUN STAFF

Alan Moon looks upon the gold beauty of Phragmipedium Grouville. It took him 15 years to bring it into being, and there it is. He smiles.

"This was one of the proudest moments of my life in orchids," he says in the knobby accent of southern England. "I find it totally stimulating and exciting."

Moon is curator of the Eric Young Foundation on the Isle of Jersey, a British tax haven off the coast of France, home of the eponymous cow. The foundation was set up to do genetic research and encourage cultivation of orchids.

He and Phragmipedium Grouville have come to Baltimore this weekend to take part in the 41st Eastern Orchid Congress at the Renaissance Harborplace Hotel.

Moon's golden orchid is only one of about 15,000 flowers on display through Sunday at the hotel. There are bigger, brighter, more exotic-looking buds on view. But Phragmipedium Grouville is a show-stopper. Why?

It is a hybrid orchid that is not sterile, the first created in the Phragmipedium genus. "Its seeds are germinating right now in Jersey," Moon beams.

This is a big breakthrough for many of the half-million people who raise orchids worldwide. It is also a triumph of genetic engineering, a created object both beautiful and enduring -- a new thing set permanently into nature.

(For the record, Phragmipedium Grouville was created from the genes of five Andean relations. Its parent species, Phragmipedium Besseue, is a dark scarlet color even more arresting than its offspring's gold.)

Moon's success story is just one attraction at the Orchid Congress, which is also a competition. Judgments will be made on the work of the hundreds of growers, amateur and professional, who have displayed the 2,500 orchid species in 32 small, precise gardens set out in a large L-shaped room.

You can buy orchids there, and pictures of orchids -- paintings, photos, drawings. About 25,000 plants are on sale, according to Richard D. Grundy, treasurer of the National Capital Orchid Society, co-sponsor of the conference with the Maryland Orchid Society.

Prices range from $5 to more than $250. It wasn't always that way. Before the 1960s, orchid growing was for those willing to pay $50-$60 a plant. Today those plants go for $5 to $10, a reduction Grundy describes as "a byproduct of biomedical research."

As a result of all that science, and a continuing search worldwide for new species of this largest group of flowering plants, there are about 30,000 separate species of orchid known today. These have yielded about 100,000 hybrids.

With so many orchids, one wonders why they are so prized. They grow virtually everywhere, in any climate, and in every size, from a quarter-inch to 20 feet high.

They live in Siberia and Greenland. Contrary to common belief, they are not comfortable in the hot tropical basins. They prefer to be on Andean or Himalayan slopes, at 3,000 to 7,000 feet. Colombia is rich in orchids; more than 2,000 species grow there. The United States is not; only 125 are known to exist north of Mexico.

The great majority of orchids are air-breathers. They don't grow in soil, but out of a loose mixture of moss, bark, leaf rot, virtually anything so long as air can reach the roots. They thrive in the canopies of tropical rain forests, clinging to the bark of trees. Only about 5 percent of species root in the earth.

Most orchids in nature -- that is, one of those 30,000 original species -- are fragrant. "They have a smell," says Grundy, "that can range from perfume to dog-do."

Not the hybrids: Artificially brought into being, they are almost all without fragrance. Nor do they match the nature-made flowers in color or beauty. As Moon puts it: "You can't beat a species. A species is the ultimate."

So why are hybrids so popular, so continually produced?

"It's just a trade," says Moon. "It is the biggest flower market in the world. It generates more money than any other flower."

Natural orchids put out a blossom once a year; it lasts for five to six weeks. Hybrids can be made to produce a blossom that lives three to four months, or comes forth three times a year.

Orchids are their own justification. Their utility is in their beauty. Their only other use is to serve as the flavoring agent in vanilla. Still, they are widely loved.

Grundy, as an earnest amateur, tends to anthropomorphize to praise the orchid's near-human responsiveness.

"It's difficult to kill orchids, which is contrary to common belief," he says, denying allegations of their wimpy delicacy. "If you neglect them they will go dormant. If you treat them well, they will reward you with lots of flowers."

Despite its commonness, the orchid's mystique, its aura of romance, endures. Young women still expect corsages of orchids on prom night. The ever-absent lover of comic strip hero Brenda Starr, Basil St. John, continues to work with black orchids to find a cure for his fatal illness. (He is doomed: There are no black orchids.)

Perhaps the flower's romance has something to do its own biology. Certain orchids, it seems, attract insects not with the lure of nectar or food, but of sex. The bugs arrive, engage in copulatory movements, then depart covered with pollen.

Beats hybridization any day.

This bud's for you

What: Eastern Orchid Congress

When: Saturday 10 a.m.-9 p.m., Sunday 10 a.m.-5 p.m., Renaissance Harborplace Hotel Cost: $5

Call: (410) 335-3522

Pub Date: 11/16/96

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