Propagating orchids by division, through offshoots, or by raising seedlings is easily within the realm of most home growers. The method you choose depends on the type of orchid and on how much time you want to devote to the process.
The easiest method of creating new orchids is by division. When you divide a plant, you'll end up with one or more new plants identical to the parent. The techniques for dividing differ, depending on the type of orchid.
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Another method of division is worth mentioning, even though it is not one for the home grower. Sooner or later, you will hear or read the term meristem culture, which describes a specialized method of rapidly increasing the number of choice plants-especially those of a scarce new cultivar. From the plant's growing tip, the meristem (the tissues at the end of a shoot containing embryonic, or undifferentiated, cells) is removed and cultured in a nutrient solution. There it reproduces itself into masses of undifferentiated tissue. Later this material is divided into small clumps; these are set in flasks of growing media, within which they develop into seedling-size plants identical to the parent plant. Hybrids reproduced in this manner may be termed mericlones.
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Growing orchids from seed is a time-consuming process best left to experienced specialists. However, you can buy flasks of small seedling plants all ready to be transferred to "community pots." This way you get the pleasure of seeing your own unique seedlings produce their first flowers, but without going through the laboratory procedures necessary for germinating the seeds.
Many orchid suppliers offer seedlings grown in flasks containing as many as 200 (but more commonly, 25 to 40) tiny plants. These plantlets are considered ready to come out of the flask when they are about 1/2 inch high; usually they are this size when you buy a flask. Better results can be obtained if the plantlets are bigger, however-at least 1 to 3 inches tall.
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Some plants taken from wild or vegetative divisions are often found in typical collections. Most will be plants raised from seed of parents in cultivation or perhaps mericlones of good orchids. The classic formula for choosing the parents is to cross a good flower with a good flower. Rubbish crossed with rubbish will probably produce flowers of a similar quality. Typically, a hybridizer will mate a good flower with another which has that quality but may have a weakness in an area where the other parent is strong.
To make the cross, do it at about the time the seed parent's flower is a quarter to a third through its normal life. That is, if the flower would normally last about six weeks, do it when it has been open two weeks.
First, carefully remove the pollinia (pollen grains bound together in waxy masses) from the flower of the seed parent and take it away. Use a toothpick or sharpened match. Next, using a different toothpick, remove the pollinia from the pollen parent. It should be bright and yellow and waxy although some genera have dark pollinia. Press it well into the sticky stigmatic surface (if it is not fluid and sticky the flower may not be receptive) of the seed bearer. The stigma is the sticky cavity found on the undersurface of the organ formed by the union of the stamen, style and stigma of the flower. Do not be disappointed if the flower dries up and drops off. Even if a seed capsule forms the seed may not be viable. Attempted crosses between widely unrelated genera are likely to fail.
If a seed capsule forms, the time taken for it to ripen is most likely to be between six months to a year, but will be a lot less in some genera. The capsule should be removed immediately if it starts to yellow. You can sow the seed yourself -it has been done on a kitchen sink - but it is usually a laboratory procedure. Alternatively, the seed can be sent to one of the professional laboratories undertaking this work for hobbyists. Find out whether they prefer the dry seed or the capsule before it has split. If the seed is viable you should receive the seedlings back, ready to deflask, in six to 18 months.
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