Orchids - good breeding
The fascination with tropical orchids dates back over 250 years. Explorers described the glorious blooms that they saw on their travels and began to send back plants for cultivation. The first to be cultivated in Europe was possibly a species of Bletia from the Bahamas which was recorded as blooming in 1732.
By the end of the eighteenth century, the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew had 17 species in its collection. By the 1850s, growers had begun to make hybrids between different orchid species, and later between different orchid genera. This introduced an ever greater diversity of flower form, size and colour to the horticultural trade.
Many showy orchids have been in cultivation over a long period of time and have been widely used in breeding programmes. Over 3000 new hybrids are registered annually. Genes from wild species used in crosses can contribute vigour, disease resistance and desirable new flower characteristics to the offspring. To tap into the wild gene pool, most growers now prefer to collect seed capsules from which they can propagate their own plants for breeding.
Cultivated orchids - big business
Each year, over 74 million dollars changes hands at auctions in the Netherlands as cultivated moth orchid plants (Phalaenopsis) are bought and sold. But this group of orchids represents just the tip of the iceberg in terms of the world orchid market. Many other orchids are also available as pot plants, suitable either for home cultivation or for experienced orchid growers, or as cut flowers.
Orchid cultivation has the potential to help or hinder orchid conservation. Currently over 90% of orchids in world trade are cultivated specimens, mainly hybrids. But some showy species are still being extracted from the wild for unethical orchid collectors. Sustainable legal harvests of wild orchids for cultivation and propagation can, however, provide income for local people and reduce the pressure on remaining natural orchid populations. In some cases, orchids can be rescued from sites where the vegetation is being cleared, with a view to propagating them for later reintroduction.