Deflasking a Bottle Orchid
Orchids aren’t like other plants. Their growth requirements can politely be called “fussy.” But that’s nothing compared to how difficult they are to germinate. Growing orchids from seed will be the subject of a post someday, but suffice to say, there’s no way to do it at home without lab equipment, which I’m not crazy enough to buy yet. Fortunately for me, there are people who are, and you can find them on eBay.
Which brings me to “orchid flasks.” One method of growing orchids from seed involves a sterile flask, a growth medium, and injecting the microscopic seeds with a syringe (like I said, lab equipment). The result of which, after a couple years and a replate or two, is an orchid flask – a bottle with dozens of baby orchids growing inside.
The upside of getting your hands on an orchid flask is that you can get dozens of plants for a very low price (usually between $10 and $50 depending on the species, which often works out to be less than a buck per plant). The downside is that they’re years away from flowering, so only do this if you’re in it for the long haul, which apparently I am. Crazy, it turns out, is a matter of degree.
I’ve gone through the process a couple times now. The grower who sold me a flask of Encyclia tampense deflasked them for me, so all I had to do was pot them. The latest was a Phalaenopsis* I got bottle and all. Here’s how I deflasked it.
- Wrap the bottle in a towel and hit it with a hammer. The trick is to break the bottle without damaging the plants. Amazingly, I did.
- Pick out the big pieces of glass and put the plants in a bowl of warm, filtered water. The water should have a little sugar added (they’ll be hungry) and a little fungicide (I used Physan 20). The bath breaks up the remaining growth medium, separates the plants, and sinks any remaining glass to the bottom.
- Then all that’s left to do is the potting. Put a few packing peanuts in each pot to keep the roots aerated and dry and a layer of damp Sphagnum moss. Scoop each plant out of the water one by one, place its roots in a little more damp moss, and put it in the pot. Be sure that the roots are in the moss, but the leaves are not. They’re so small, I could fit 4-5 plants in each 2.25-inch pot.
- Finally, the pots go in a mini-greenhouse to keep their humidity up, and the whole thing goes under a fluorescent grow light in a warm room.
The orchids will get frequent misting to stay damp, and occasional doses of fungicide to prevent infection, but the rest is up to them. If they’re happy, they’ll grow bigger and eventually graduate out of the mini-greenhouse and into proper orchid media and individual pots. But even in the best case scenario, it’ll be 2-3 years before I ever see a flower. Think about that the next time you see a cheap orchid in a flower shop.
If you want to try it yourself, here’s an eBay search for “orchid flask” to get you started and another walkthrough I found helpful. But be warned – this is not for the casual gardener. I’ll be thrilled if I can keep just one of these guys alive long enough to flower.
* UPDATE: I found a photo of the adult plant and it turns out these guys are not Phalaenopsis at all, they’re probably Hygrochilus parishii, which like bright light and heat, neither of which I have here in San Francisco. Adventure!