Saturday, June 27, 2009

Guess the Hybrid 2 - Parents Found!

I can finally announce that the parents of my Guess the Hybrid blog have been found! The parents are C. Sue and C. Summer Pearl. A quick look at the lineage shows that this cross is a bit incestuous! On the Sue side, C. Peter Pan is the father and C. Showgirl the mother. Peter Pan and a Showgirl? Sounds saucy enough. On the Summer Pearl side, C. Peter Pan is the mother and C. Trigo Royale is the Father. So here we have a hybrid that is half C. Peter Pan just like it's parents! Plants are so indiscriminant with who they mate and in what role.

Cymbidium Summer Pearl

Cymbidium Sue 'Maidstone'

Cymbidium Sue 'Maidstone'

Cymbidium Sue X Summer Pearl

The smaller of two spikes produced
on this first-flowered seedling.

At the moment in the northern hemisphere, Cymbidium flowers are rare. There are a few hybrids and species that flower at this time of year but the main season is well and truly over. Time is at a premium as growers busily repot and spend the majority of their time feeding, watering and keeping critters off their plants. Of course summer is also the time to catch up with family, take holidays and enjoy the weather. Well from what I hear about the east coast of the USA at the moment there is not too much weather to be enjoying!

We here in the southern hemisphere are right in the middle of our Cymbidium season. The ultra-earlies and many of the earlies are finished or finishing and the midseason plants are exerting their influence. We are in Cymbidium Heaven at the moment. Our biggest challenge is keeping up with the staking and grooming. Oh, and taking photographs!

There is a bit of a down-side to the differences in seasons between north and south, especially on the activity on our web-based Cymbidium forum. Most of the members of this web group are from the northern hemisphere. A strong contingent of us are however from the southern hemisphere. At this time of year, we southern hemisphere members are a bit lonely as most of our friends are off doing other, perhaps more interesting pursuits. We l'eft-behind' members try to do all sorts of things to try to encourage our northern friends to pay us web visits.

As I have mentioned in previous posts, one of the little 'games' that we play on the web forum is guess-the-hybrid. George is particularly good at coming up with plants that stump most of the members. Many of these plants are first-flowered seedlings. It is always fascinating to see what the result of a cross is and then work out what the parents are. As with most breeding programs, not all the progeny behave as they should, there are throwbacks, freaks, novel combinations that produce unusual results and sometimes just the odd strange occurrence.

The plant pictured above is my latest contribution to the guess the hybrid game. The clues are:

  • The plant is flowering now, June in the southern hemisphere.
  • Both parents have been mentioned in previous posts of mine in 2009.
  • The plant has bolt upright spikes with about 8-12 flowers (8 on the spike pictured).
  • The plant would be classed as an intermediate.
  • The parentage would suggest a modicum of warmth tolerance.
  • The colour is not what you would expect from crossing the two parents.
I hope all of you in the northern hemisphere enjoy this little beauty. When it first came out its full beauty was not appreciated. The true qualities of this plant emerged only after it was brought inside, photographed and then left on the kitchen table. Five weeks later it is still going strong. The smell is almost to the point of overpowering. The morning sun makes the colours sparkle. The subtlety of the colour combinations coupled with the fragrance reminds me of a beautiful Frangipani I recently saw in Adelaide. I am so glad that the advice given to me by a friend, to throw this plant on the compost bin, was not followed. Rightfully so! He now wants a piece of the plant. I think he will be waiting a long time.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Orchid in an unguilded cage

June in this part of the world is one of the most magical of times of the year. Days are short but spectacular. The sun, being at a low angle in the sky, casts the most amazing light over the landscape. The air is filled with humidity. On still, clear nights, heavy dews form and rivers of fog flow down the valleys from the mountains. If the night is lit by a full moon you can see the roiling of the currents in these rivers of white. Actually, you can only see them from the hilltops. Those in the valley are shrouded in the fog. On various nights the depth of the fog rivers vary. On average they fill half the valley leaving the hilltops exposed like islands. You can tell the average fog level by the vegetation that occurs above and below the midpoint. The species composition of these two vegetation types is radically different. Different trees, different shrubs and different wildflowers.

The vegetation of the region is partially dictated by the rivers of fog. The temperature in these fog rivers can be several degrees Celsius cooler than the exposed hilltops. My friends who lives in the flow of one of these fog rivers commonly experiences temperatures up to 10 degrees C. cooler than my place. Frost is common at their house and almost non-existent at mine. Last year they had 40 frosts, we had one. Burt and Sue only live a couple of hundred metres away! You can see their house in the picture below. The ridgeline of their roof is that little bright bit on the left of the photo.

Fog River
(just after sunrise)

On the high dry hills above the fog rivers an abundance of plants thrive. Plants that would die in the frost and humidity of the valleys. Even though these hilltops are crispy-dry in the summer, they have reasonable rainfall in the winter. The Geophytic plants thrive here using their strategy of having underground storage-organs to collect the goodies when they are available and retreat back underground when the times get tough. Several totally unrelated plant families use the geophyte strategy on our little hilltops. Orchids, Lilies and Sundews are the main participants in the seasonal ritual of hide and seek. Pre-eminent of these three groups is the Orchids. Over 55 species occur in just 160 hectares of what most people would think was pretty scrappy dry forest. One of the first species to flower in Autumn is the Tiny Greenhood (Pterostylis parviflora). With flowers less than 1 cm long and the tiniest of leaves it is really hard to see these little devils amongst the jumble of dead leaves and twigs that blanket most of the ground.

Tiny Greenhood (Pterostylis parviflora)

On winter mornings when the fog rivers are flowing, the animals, ever sensible beings, head for the warmer hilltops to bask in the morning sun. Kangaroos graze until the sun is well up and then snooze away the morning sunning themselves. The groups of little twittery birds come up for their morning baths and a bit of breakfast. I should be correct here, these feathered flocks are guilds of unrelated passerine (perching) birds. The groups contain upward of 30-40 individuals of about 10-12 different species. The Tree Creepers hunt bugs under the bark of the trees, starting from the base and working upward. The Sitellas eat the same food but start at the tops of the trees and work down. The Wagtails and Fantails, being flycatchers, do acrobatics as they catch their food in-flight. Buff-rumped, Yellow-rumped, Brown and Striated Thornbills pick invertebrates from the branches and leaves. The melodious tones of the Grey Shrike-thrush ring out after each morsel is consumed from amongst the leaf litter on the ground. The mad twittering mass arrives suddenly, hangs around until everyone has had their bath and in a flash are off to depopulate another area of its critters.

The late arrival, usually by mid-morning, are the White-winged Choughs. They really do deserve their nickname of Larrikins of the Bush. These highly social birds can not do anything on their own and appear to take nothing seriously, except when they launch raiding parties to steal another groups fledglings. Choughs, both young and old, play with their food, are messy eaters and are real gluttons. A Chough will eat just about anything including mouldy bread, compost, any animal matter they can get their beaks into and just about any part of any plant. The birds are real survivors. Oh, I forgot to mention, they show little fear of humans.

Some of the favourite foods of these comical Choughs are the tubers of our beloved geophytes the Orchids Lilies and Sundews. The strategy used by the plants to store carbohydrates provide convenient little packages of concentrated nutrient, ripe for the picking if you can find them. The life strategy of the Choughs is similar to the familiar domestic Chicken; scratch, peck, scratch, peck, dig with beak, peck, scratch. The normal group size of this bird is about 8-12 individuals. A group of this size methodically working through the bush can pretty much collect almost all of the tubers of the orchids in an area that attracts their attention. After they have intensively worked an area they move on.

White-wingd Choughs (Corcorax melanophamphos)

Now a population of 8-12 birds working 50 hectares would be about normal for our area. At this density the plants and invertebrates of the area would have time to recover between despoilings. Many of the geophytes in the area are clonal in nature and form huge colonies by sending out numbers of daughter plants from the the mother, similar to the growth habit of a strawberry but with the runners under the ground. Beth Gott, a famous ethnobotanist, studied recovery rates of greenhood orchids after human harvesting. People find the tubers of orchids yummy as well. Beth found that she could remove half of the tubers of a colony each year without effecting population numbers. The numbers of tubers one year later would be back to where they were before harvest! This didn't allow for expansion of the colony but did not send it toward extinction.

Humans and Choughs go together really well. Choughs are opportunists and humans are wasteful and like to have wildlife around them. When this area was developed, humans moved into the habitat of the Chough. Now with many species, mixing with humans disadvantages the animal. Choughs exploited the opportunity and their numbers increased. Group sizes reached 30 or more members and groups could be supported half the area of the original 8-12 birds. How is this? What is going on here? In short, compost bins and purposeful feeding. Everyone had an open compost bin. This provided a nice daily supply of kitchen scraps and a big dump of stale bread and refrigerator cleanings once a week after the shopping. A few supposed nature lovers enjoyed the humanlike behavour of the Choughs that involved lots of displaying, grooming, napping, squabbling and playing. How to keep them around? A daily feed of bread, wheat or oats.

Problem. What happens when you quadruple the population of an omnivore and then stop their supplemental food supply? They revert to their natural food. The minimal impact they used to have on the orchid population on our little hill turned into a full-on assault and pillaging. When one of the neighbours who daily fed sacks of bread to the Choughs moved out, the orchid population plummeted.

Being an endangered species it was not possible to control the Choughs through direct methods. How to you re-balance an out-of-balance species? We used the multipronged approach. Put simply, covered compost bins, no feeding of Choughs and protect the Geophytes from predation. Unfortunately, this was going to be a long process and there would be further losses of the orchids. Fifteen years later and the populations of Choughs are getting back to their original numbers. This may have been helped by the ten years of drought we have been experiencing. Another negative side effect is the bushland is littered with wire cages, not to keep the Choughs in but to keep them out. The orchids are the ones in the cages.

Wire exclosures protecting colonies of orchids

Within the cages, away from the digging beaks of the Choughs, the orchids thrive and bloom. These delicate little plants, many of them only centimeters tall, carpet the ground inside, but are scattered in ones and two outside the cage, usually with their tubers firmly buried in a crack in a rock or beneath a dense tuft of grass. The fact that they are starting to show up outside of the cages is an encouraging sign. The 'escapees' are a new phenomenon, only appearing in the past few years and corresponding to the drop in Chough numbers.

Nicholls Greenhood (Pterostylis sp. aff. striata)
Inside the cage they thrive.

One of the orchids that occurs in these cages is an undescribed species of Greenhood Orchid that flowers in Autumn. It has gone under various names in the past in an attempt to shoehorn it into an existing described species. It has been called Pterostylis alata, P. striata, P. sp. aff. alata and P. sp. aff. striata, usually with an area description afterwards (e.g. Northeast Melbourne Foothills) . It is presently being formally described and named after a famous orchidologist who wrote the seminal book on The Orchids of Australia.

Flowering well under the cage.

Rosettes growing densely in moss under the cage.

Rosettes are barely 2 cm across but the leaves are
beautifully reticulated with wavy edges.

Several years ago a small colony of Nicholls Greenhood re-appeared after many years of absence. Instead of racing home and grabbing one of the normal wire cages to protect the plants I decided to try something different. This time I took an old dead shrub and placed it over colony. Just enough protection that it would make it difficult for the Choughs to want to bother moving a dead shrub. Leaves are easy to move when you have a beak but not branches. There were three plants when the colony was found four years ago. Three years ago there were 11, two years ago 35, last year 62 and this year I stopped counting at 100. I reckon there are nearly 200 now. Finally an example of expansion not just holding ground. The plants are not as densely packed as the plants in the cages but the individual plants are nearly twice as large. The leaf little builds up faster outside the cages and may alter the distribution of the species within a given population.

Free at last!
Outside the cages.

Looking all happy and perky,
obviously enjoying freedom.

While it is encouraging to see plants escaping from the cages it would be premature to rejoice too much and free the prisoners from their jail. These cages will for the foreseable future be necessary until the plant numbers recover sufficiently to allow natural predation by the Choughs. In the meantime we celebrate little victories.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Ushering in Winter with a blush of pink!

You know winter is approaching when the main flush of early-season pink Cymbidiums start to bloom in May. There are pink Cymbidiums that bloom earlier, a few of which are noteworthy. In April the very beautiful Cymbidium Aunty Mary Kovich 'April Pink' sends up tall thin stems with up to a dozen smallish dark pinkish flowers with a most amazing fragrance. To 'guild-the-lily', so to speak, the floral display is set above a tuft of narrow leaves. I literally mean that the flowers are set above the leaves. Aunty Mary has Cymbidium insigne and C. sinense as its parents, having inherited the 1 m long or longer flower spikes with the flowers in the upper third from each parent. If Aunty Mary flowered in the cooler months instead of the unpredictable and sometimes hot early autumn weather here in Melbourne, it would last longer in flower. Unfortunately, this is not the case. I must say, it is hard to hold this apparent downfall against the plant. When you flower so early, have such an attractive flower and plant and a magnificent fragrance, how could you hold a grudge. If I lived in the mountains instead of the foothills I am sure the flowers would last much longer.

Aunty Mary Kovich 'April Pink'

The breeding of Cymbidium Peter Pan assisted greatly in ushering in a whole series of early-flowered Cymbidiums including the pinks. One might say 'especially the pinks'. Actually, C. Peter Pan was breed in 1957 but was not used sucessfully as a parent until Dr. Donald Wimber converted it to a tetraploid many years later. Progeny before this time were all triploid and unable to carry the breeding any further. The converted form was named C. Peter Pan 'Greensleeves'. Like C. Aunty Mary Kovich, C. Peter Pan has a great Asian summer-flowering species as a parent, namely C. ensifolium. Both C. sinense and C. ensifolium introduce heat tolerance and early flowering to hybrids as well as strong perfume. C. Peter Pan, although a hybrid between C. ensifolium and a standard, cold tolerant Cymbidium, retains autumn flowering with some flowering at other times of the year. The best qualities about C. Peter Pan from a breeders point of view are that: 1.) it is an easy grower 2.) heat/cold tolerant 3.) has upright flower spikes 4.) accepts other colours 5.) is fragrant and 6.) is highly fertile.

Cymbidium Peter Pan 'Greensleeves' 4N

Cymbidium Wendy, bred in 1987, was one of the attempts to introduce pink into the C. Peter Pan line. Get it, Peter Pan and Wendy? Who says orchid breeders don't have a sense of humour. Unfortunately, the other parent used to create Wendy was the pink diploid C. Wondah. Wendy, the progeny of this unfortunate crossing of Peter Pan and Wondah was a triploid and was effectively sterile or at least it failed to produce offspring. It is a great shame that his unfortunate fate would befall such a beautiful plant. Cymbidium Wendy 'Copabella' is an absolutely beautiful pink with a stunning lip. It is a freeflowering, easy to grow plant. In many repects it is like a pink version of C. Peter Pan with flowers that last for 2 months. Cymbidium Peter Pan flowers last barely a month.

Cymbidium Wendy 'Copabella' 3N

A much later pairing of Peter Pan, this time with the dusky pinkish-red C. Winter Fire did produce fertile offspring, the surprisingly popular C. Peter Fire. Now for me this pairing is not an obvious first choice. The colour of many C. Winter Fire is, well, less than clear or bright. The interesting thing about some forms of C. Winter Fire is that they have feathered petals and sepals. This feathering comes in several shades including: white, greyish-white, cream and greyish-pink. C. Peter Pan has an interesting colouring as well. Even though C. Peter Pan is generally green, if flowered in high light it gets slight reddish/brownish shading on the petals and sepals and reddish speckles at the base of the petals. You can imagine the tears from the breeder upon seeing the results of this cross between to 'interestingly' coloured Cymbidiums. Well, the colours did not come out quite as expected but they are 'interesting'. These are normally the words of the breeder putting an optimistic spin on a less than successful cross.

Some of the C. Peter Fire however did turn out passable to the breeder and wildly popular with the buying public. Turns out that womens' tastes in colours are radically different from we menfolk. Dusky pinks and mulberrys predominate with some individual clones with colour that fades as it extends out the petals and sepals. Colour also varies wildly when flowers are opened in high light or low light. A dusky mulberry in high light can fade to a light dusky pink with mulberry spots in low-light conditions. I have a set of C. Peter Fire 'Cutie' exhibiting just this syndrome this year. Last year I purchased a flowering plant of C. Peter Fire 'Fabulous' based on its bright pinkish flowers and red lip, as clearly illustrated on the Valley Orchids website and in their nursery. What a suprise when it flowered this year, obviously under different light conditions. I actually like it better under my light conditions! How's that for a strange turn of events? Breeding with 'interesting' colours can lead to a successful cross.

Cymbidium Peter Fire 'Fabulous'

One of the most successful of the early Cymbidiums and certainly one of the best breeders of high quality early pinks is C. Summer Pearl. This wonderful hybrid is another hybrid of C. Peter Pan, this time using the highly useful C. Trigo Royale. The later of these two hybrids is especially valued by the cut-flower industry because of its lasting qualities of the flowers, especially when cut. One of the issues when using some of the early season species and hybrids, especially those using C. ensifolium, C. erythrostylum, C. sinense and C. tracyanum, are that they do not draw water when cut and barely last a day after removal from the plant. Even though C. Trigo Royale has a high proportion of C. erythrostylum in its heritage the poor keeping qualities have been not only diluted but completely eliminated. There is now a long list of 'earlies' that contain C. Summer Pearl as a parent. One of my favourites at the moment is an un-named hybrid between Summer Pearl and Valley Glory.

Cymbidium Summer Pearl

Cymbidium Summer Pearl X Valley Glory

Before there was Cymbidium Peter Pan to assist in the breeding of early season pinks there was the absolutely beautiful species C. erythrostylum. While C. erythrostylum provided the early flowering characteristic it was C. insigne that provided the lovely pink colour. Cymbidium Albanense, the hybrid between C. erythrostylum and C. insigne provided the key link to a long line of pink hybrids, mainly in the early to mid season. While many of the first forms of C. Albanense were white with red spotted lips, several were a delicate pink. Recent remakes of C. Albanense are a good strong pink and provide exciting opportunities for further improvements of early flowering pinks, especially for miniatures and intermediate types. The characteristic triangular shape of C. erythrostylum and the smaller lip are passed on for several generations. The petals of C. erythrostylum close in over the column but when crossed with species or hybrids with more open form these broad petals open out in the progeny and give after a few generations what are classed as the 'rounded shape' that we have come to accept as the standard.

Cymbidium erythrostylum 'Dale'

One of the most recent hybrids to come out of Andy Easton's breeding stable is the very lovely C. Plum Village X C. Flying Colors. This is a very interesting little plant. Little is apt as the whole plant in full flower is only about 35 cm tall with about a dozen smallish, perky but well formed flowers. What is fascinating about this plant is the strong influence of C. erythrostylum. You can just look at it and see the original species in it. The parentage is actually very complex with C. erythrostylum, C. Alexanderi, C. floribundum (pumilum) and a range of other large-growing species and hybrids in its ancentry. The repeated use of pure white and pink petaled species and hybrids has lead to an unbelievably clear pink in the petals and sepals of this little cutie.

Cymbidium Plum Village X C. Flying Colors

Recently, I went to Adelaide to give a talk to the local Cymbidium Club. I was to give a talk on the influence of the old awarded plants, those species and hybrids awarded by the RHS between the 1880's to 1930. One of the reasons I wanted to talk about such an obscure topic was to highlight how these plants could still play a role in modern hybridizing. When looking through the collection of hybrid seedlings in the greenhouse at the moment, there were many of these 'Vintage' plants used as parents even though the crosses using them were made in the past couple of years.

While in Adelaide a wonderful man named Peter Hall and his Cymbidium club friend Wayne Baylis where my tour guides. I showed up at Peters house for a good day out looking at other peoples collections. He was a bit disparaging of his own collection and assumed that there would be nothing that I would be interested in. It could not have been further from the truth! Sitting there right outside of his back door was a plant I had been looking for for years, the serenely beautiful Cymbidium Osborn (C. erythrostylum X C. dayanum). By chance one of the people we were going to visit was the breeder of C. Osborn, the very individualistic Malcolm Osborn. This man has taken the brave and forward-thinking step and moved solely into the growing and breeding of miniature Cymbidiums. His collection was stunning and immaculately maintained. He was kind enough to provide me with a very healthy division of the plant of my desire.

Cymbidium Osborn 'Pink Mist'

Cymbidium Osborn 'Pink Mist'

One of the older hybrids that shows the C. erythrostylum influence and the beautiful pink colour is appropriately named 'Rosie'. Now 'Rosie' is not an officially recognised name but this stunning plant has been doing the rounds for many years. It comes out of the now defunct stable of Cecil Park Orchids. Although never named, the parentage of this hybrid is well known, namely, Earlyana X Henry Davis. The influence of C. erythrostylum is clearly evident in the broad, upward swept petals and triangular shape of the overall flower. This shape influence is not surprising as 'Rosie' is only three steps away from erythrostylum through the C. Earlyana parent. Cymbidium Earlyana is a hybrid between C. Early Bird and C. Louisiana. Cymbidium Early Bird is half C. erythrostylum. The other major influence in 'Rosie' is the wonderfully bizarre and highly fragrant C. tracyanum, itself a very early bloomer.

A couple of the nicest aspects of C. 'Rosie' are the vibrant colours and strong fragrance. The size of the flower and plant is well within the range of the normal standard types. the flower spike is over a metre tall and the flowers a good 10 cm across. Can you smell it by just looking at the picture? I can. The french have a name for that syndrome but for the life of me can't think of the word at the moment.

Cymbidium 'Rosie' (Earlyana X Henry Davis)

Sometimes an un-named plant comes into my posession that I know one of the parents but do not have a clue about the others that are listed. Going on trust you have to assume that the breeder knew what they were doing when they made the cross. Suspicion can be raised in the mind when one of the parents is itself un-named. One such plant recently came to live with me. The name on the label was (Sylvania X Palaker) X Musita. In this case the plant was not chosen because of the parentage but because when I walked into the sales shed of a local breeder and grower the plant jumped out at me. Not literally, but the colour was so clear and intense and the habit of the plant so attractive that I had to purchase it. The breeder was not originally going to sell it because he wanted it for himself. I love his wife for talking him out of keeping it. I have yet to work out its full heritage but it is clear from the little research that I have done that there is not a trace of C. Peter Pan in there anywhere. Interestingly, the parents were originally bred in 1970, 1976 and 1961 respectively. Here we go with the old hybrids playing a role in modern breeding! Needless to say, C. erythrostylum plays a large part in this hybrid through its grandparents parents C. Stanley Fouraker and C. Early Bird.

cymbidium (Sylvania X Palaker) X Musita

Cymbidium (Sylvania X Palaker) X Musita

Cymbidium (Cherry something. I can't read my own writing!)

My friend Julians plant is also a real stunner. A standard by classification but far from standard in looks. I wrote down the name incorrectly, which is something that happens when overly excited. This plant is pretty stunning in real life! Looks like this hybrid is probably a cross between the C. Peter Pan and C. erythrostylum lines of breeding. It is certainly a fragrant early season pink with broad upward swept petals! I am only guessing though. Will have to follow up on this one.