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Plantgasm - I love plants too much. By Derek Powazek.

The Continuing Phalaenopsis Impregnation Saga

collecting Phalaenopsis seed

Orchids have tricky reproduction cycles. I’ve previously written about the kinky things they do to the insects that pollinate them, but that’s just the beginning. Once their seeds are released, sometimes as much as a year later, they go on their own adventure.

Orchid seeds are incredibly tiny and very fragile. In the wild, they’d be carried by the wind into moss that grows in trees. The seeds cary no food of their own, so they’re entirely dependent on the environment they land in. If it’s not just right, the seedling won’t survive. They make up for this fragility by releasing a lot of seeds. A single orchid seed pod can contain half a million seeds.

This fragility also meant that orchids were almost impossible to reproduce outside of their native habitats. A hundred years ago, the germination rate for orchid seed was in single digits. The difficulty and rarity of them contributed to their allure.

But in the 1950s, a technique was invented to grow orchids from seed with a germination rate of 90% or more. Basically you sterilize a flask, add a growing medium, and place seeds inside. The sterile environment allows the seeds to grow without any danger of fungus contamination. This is known as “orchid flasking” and it’s the reason you can now buy a once-rare plant in a grocery store for a few bucks.

When I impregnated my Phalaenopsis, I looked into doing the flasking myself at home. It’s possible, but it’s pretty complicated, so I decided to send the seeds to an expert: Troy Meyers. They Meyers Conservatory in Washington is unique because they’ll flask your seeds for free if they’re a species (which mine weren’t, so I had to pay, but that’s fine) in order to discourage the taking of orchids from native habitats.

Using their instructions, I set my pods in paper towels (they suggested coffee filters but I didn’t have any) to let the pod dry and collect all the seeds.

collecting Phalaenopsis seed

After a week or so, there was a fine orange dust at the bottom of the paper cone. In that teaspoon of dust were hundreds of thousands of Phalaenopsis seeds.

I packaged up the seeds and mailed them off to Meyers. When they received them, they did an “assay” to review the seeds, and I got this report:

Seed is golden brown to the naked eye, and free flowing. Medium sized seeds are long-rice shaped, have one blunt end, and have moderately small sized elongated brownish-yellow embryos centrally located which are 3/4 the length of the seed.

They also included two photos: one with transmitted light and one with reflected light. According to the assay, 97% of the seeds appear to have good embryos – a good sign.

Photo by Amber Kost Photo by Amber Kost

Now the seeds will be sterilized and flasked (they may have been already) and we’ll settle in for a long wait. It’ll be months before we can tell if they’re growing, and then a year or so before we’ve got anything resembling a seedling. But so far, so good!

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2 Responses

So cool, Derek! The folks at Troy Meyers sound very professional. I hope to be sending them a pod of my own soon.

Posted by Zach on 22 March 2012 @ 1pm

When my Ludisia bloomed again this year, I got a wild hair and tried selfing it. I had such a tough time getting the pollen off of the toothpick, I thought I dropped it so I didn’t expect anything. Ended up with pod, and it ripened much faster than I expected – one day green, a couple days later it had split and was shedding seed. I ended up sprinkling it around the plants. If I get one seedling I will be jazzed. I can’t imagine trying to raise a flask of orchids, but thanks for the link.

Posted by Thomas on 22 March 2012 @ 8pm


Plantgasm is where Derek Powazek chronicles his botanical antics and misadventures. More.