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Exploradio - Orchid obsessions
No other plant has captured the human imagination like the orchid.  People have created a quarter-million varieties, but the hunger for more is insatiable.
This story is part of a special series.

Reporter / Host
Jeff St. Clair
A large hybrid orchid called Cattleya is a cross between 3 different varieties. Hundreds of new hybrids are created each year.
Courtesy of Jeff St.Clair
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They’re the most diverse group of flowers on earth, and among the  most popular -  more orchids are sold in the U.S. than any potted plant.

But for a certain few, orchids are more than a hobby, they’re an obsession.  And as with any obsession, there are risks. 

In this week’s Exploradio -   the art, science, and maddening allure of orchids.

Exploradio - Orchid obsessions

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A waterfall splashes onto the path winding through the Costa Rican rainforest exhibit at the Cleveland Botanical Garden. Colorful birds flit among the greenhouse rafters. And butterflies flutter by, drawn, like head of horticulture Cynthia Druckenbrod, to the riot of color before us.

“We specifically placed many of the very fragrant orchids next to the bridge right at nose level so that you can dive right into them.  Some are sweet, some are musky, or citrusy, some of them are peppery, and some even have a very pungent scent.”

Orchids in nearly every shape, size, and color jut from a nearby mound of Spanish moss. Some resemble spiders with long tendrils, others seem to dance in frilled skirts, or dazzle with mottled petals.

But none of them, according to Druckenbrod, can be found in a real rainforest.

“They are all hybrids. Hybrids of different genera, closely related genera, to create different colors, different flower shapes, sometimes different fragrances.”

Created in the lab

Apart from two nondescript wild orchids, all the enormous variety of orchids on display are man-made, created over just the past few decades.

“Most of them are very recent hybrids that were created in the laboratory setting.”

Orchid breeders have registered more than one-hundred and twenty thousand cultivars and another hundred thousand or more are awaiting recognition from international orchid societies.  It’s the most diverse plant group in the wild, but Druckenbrode says orchids have seduced humans like no other plant.

“We think of orchids as very sensual, very sultry, very exotic, and the fact that there are so many different varieties now, you can go crazy with this hobby if you so choose.”

A life-long fascination

Edgar Stehli acknowledges he’s obsessed by orchids.

“There are 4,000 plants in this greenhouse.”

The 65-foot long greenhouse in the backyard of his Broadview Heights home is filled with 15-hundred varieties of orchid. Except for a narrow path, every inch is alive with shiny green leaves and exotic flowers.

“I grow a lot of species orchids … from all over the world. It’s kinda fun when I go through my greenhouse. This is from South America, that’s from Central America, this is from Australia, that’s from China; it’s sort of going on a world tour in my greenhouse.”

Stehli’s orchid mania began as kid. He remembers his father showed him one of Ohio’s native orchids while they were hiking. Stehli was struck by the flower’s unique structure.

“I’m holding a flower and when you look at the parts of a flower, on the back-side of the flower are three sepals. And on the front side, there are two petals and one petal that’s modified into a lip. And the lip is the landing pad of the pollinating insect.”

Stehli demonstrates the complicated mechanism that tricks a bug into fertilizing the flower.

“The pollen has a little sticky tab that gets stuck to the back of the head of the insect and comes away from the flower when he pulls away from the flower.”

It’s part of his lifelong fascination with orchids.

“The miracle of adaptation that they’ve gone through in order to survive and become so specialized, it’s mind-boggling.”

Black market flowers

Still, Stehli says it’s impossible to explain the hold that orchids can have on people.

“You never know who’s going to have an interest in orchids; it can be your auto mechanic, it can be your doctor, it can be anybody.”

The worldwide desire for rare orchids has driven some people beyond collecting into crime. Stehli says some rare species fetch thousands of dollars on the black market.  Federal and international agencies track orchid sales and some caught dealing in illicit flowers have been sentenced to jail time.

Every orchid in Stehli’s collection has a record of where it was grown and how it was originally collected. He says that guarantees hybrids he creates will have the proper parentage.

You can risk catching orchid mania through March 25th at the Cleveland Botanical Garden.

Related Links & Resources
Cleveland Botanical Garden webpage

American Orchid Society website

Listener Comments:

We have a bromeliad expert in Oberlin who's placed some of his collection in a greenhouse at the Lewis center that helps filter and clean water used in the building. Worth the trip to see.

Posted by: Karen Schaefer (Oberlin) on February 20, 2012 11:02AM
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