Hamilton is a lifelong resident of Berkeley, California. He
is presently the Equipment and Facilities Manager of the University
of California, Berkeley Microfabrication Laboratory. He currently
breeds, flasks and grows Odontoglossum hybrids and species
with an eye to preserving and improving. He began to specialize
in this genus in 1980.
ON: In your lecture,
you said that the gene pool of the premier plants of the last centuries
species would be lost. Why and how can it be avoided?
RH: The cause of the loss of this extraordinary
gene pool is simply lack of interest in growing hybrid orchids. When
a plant is dead, it is dead and so is its genome! Today, orchid species
dominate hobbyists interests. There are several reasons for this. One
is a response to the rapid devastation of our rain forests and tropics.
It is likely hobby growers can do little to save the biodiversity of
these regions but they will try. It is natural to be heroic. I do not
think most hobby growers spend much time thinking about the origins
of hybrid orchids or that they contain the genes of extraordinary species
found in the early days of collecting. This gene pool is no longer available
from the wild.
Also, I have noticed there are fewer and fewer young people interested
in hobbies. In most parts of industrial societies where there is the
kind of wealth needed to support a hobby, land is expensive, zoning
ordinances are becoming more prohibitive and there is less leisure time.
The climates at northern latitudes require greenhouse conditions and
greenhouses are an expensive proposition. I think most younger people
are mostly interested in "bought stuff", i.e. consumer goods.
As noted, orchid collections cannot survive the loss of interest by
one generation. Botanic gardens are, for the most part preoccupied with
preserving and cataloguing dead stuff. There are no extraordinary odontoglossum
collections in public gardens. I understand the Heidelberg Botanic Gardens
held a good collection of odontoglossums that included Leonore Bockmuhl's
(author of the excellent "Odontoglossums - A Monograph and Iconograph")
plants. The collection has not faired well. I hear most of the collection
has gone to orchid heaven -- in less than one generation of "culture"!
I have seen the "Living Herbarium" at Kew Gardens. I do not
think this is an appropriate name without adding the adverb "barely"!
Make no mistake, Kew is a great orchid resource; however like most botanic
gardeners are not good orchid growers. Meristem culture has also made
a great number of great orchids available en mass. Thus, to many people
orchid hyrbids are pedestrian. Meristems have greatly increased the
numbers of orchids but lessened the attraction for hybrid orchids. Finally,
a lot of tropical orchids can find homes in gardens that have conducive
climates, such as vandas in Florida. They will grow in that climate
with little care. This is not true for odontoglossums. There are few
areas of the world that are suitable for hosting odontoglossums without
ON: Which species are you talking about?
RH: There are only a handful of species that have
been used to produce the bulk of today's Odontoglossum. These
include crispum, nobile, harryanum, luteopurpureum,
spectatissimum and hallii. If one includes the artificial
genus Odontioda then we need only add Cochlioda noezliana
with its intense red color.
ON: Which are the desirable characteristics to be transmitted to the
RH: The obvious characteristics are size, color
and pattern. The not so obvious ones are vigor, disease resistance and
cultural latitude. Finally, fertility is needed for future progeny so
"ploidy" or chromosome numbers are important.
ON: Odontoglossum crispum has more than 6600 hybrids in 8 generation.
Odontoglossum harryanum, almost 6.000 also in 8 generations.
Odontoglossum luteo-purpureum more than 2000 em 11 generations.
Are they the the species most used in hybridizing?
RH: There are several paths for hybridizing. We
can try and maintain and improve the type of odontoglossums we have
in cultivation. This is one path. Another is to develop new combinations
and looks. Growers of older plants often find many clones are difficult
to maintain in cultivation. I do not know if this is the result of disease
such as viruses or genetics -- perhaps both! Many great first bloom
plants never go on to be great plants. This is true for all orchid hybrids,
not just odonts. In English we have an idiom, "a one trick pony".
(This may or may not translate well). I believe we must identify great
plants and maintain a "core" collection of these plants. We
call plants that breed true, "lines" so we need to preserve
the great lines for whites, whites with spots, patterns, yellows, albas,
shape, branching, etc. In addition, there are large numbers of species
never used before in hybridization. Many growers like to try new combinations.
I do my share of these. This is gambling with lots of failures but also
some outstanding successes. Anyone who pursues new breeding paths for
money is a fool. The legitimate reasons for making such crosses is for
beauty, love and adventure! It helps to be a bit crazy, too.
ON: There are some species that have just a few old hybrids such Odontoglossum
blandum (Odontoglossum Cookeanum - 1856, Odontoglossum
Blando-nobile, 1910 and Odontoglossum Tacki, by 1917). Odontoglossum
gloriosum (25 hybrids) Why? The results were not so good as expected?
RH: Perhaps the goal of breeding at that time
was different than today? Size was a huge issue in the early days of
breeding. Much breeding was pursued for the purpose of awards. As you
imply, we should revisit many species including blandum. I believe blandum
was lost from collections for some time. It has only recently become
available with its discovery in Ecuador. Blandum is in a group
Bockmuhl lumps as the "erectolobata". This group also includes
cirhossum and praestans, both of which have gone on to
produce some terrific, novel hybrids. Keith Andrew of England explored
many orchid "underdogs" such as cirhossum with great
results such as Oda Startrek! The World needs more hybridizers
with Keith's vision. About 15 years ago I remade a cirhossum
cross, cirhossum x nobile. I gifted the bottles to Sequoia
Orchids. They grew hundres of the cross, Odm Venillia. This is
a commercial nursery. When Venillia first began flowering I got a call.
"Why did you make this cross? It is too small to attract attention".
Six months later I got a call. "Will you remake the cross? It is
really popular! Venillia has gone on to make some wonderful plants such
as Odm Roy Wittwer.
ON: There are some other species that have an interesting characteristic
such as Odontoglossum crinitum ( a fimbriatum white and red lip)
however, there is just one hybrid registered. What is the reason, is
due to the number of the flowers, from three to five?
RB: I can only guess. Low flower count is not
an advantage. There are also only handfuls of odontoglossum breeders
and there are not that many crosses being made at present. Propagating
odontoglossums requires flasking and this can be a substantial bottleneck
because only a few labs really do a good job at raising odontoglossum
bottles. Also, the aggregate market for new seedlings is really very
small. Growers don't want to take the risk of raising a crop to see
what happens. Crinitum is a beautiful flower. I say, let's give
it a go!
ON: Why Odontoglossum lucianianum has is not often used in hybrids?
Although it is small, the flowers have beautiful colors and the inflorescence
is 40cm long.
RB: Everyone who has thumbed through Bockmuhls
book wants to grow lucianum. She captured and printed a gorgeous
picture of it. It is not available. The only plant I know of in the
US required a dedicated trip to Venezuela to find it. I envy and admire
the person who has the fortitude to collect this plant. It is rare and
pollen from it is just now becoming available..
ON: It is said that this genus has almost 180 species coming the mountains
of South America (Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador and Peru). Which country
is the richest in species?
RH: Colombia has the best of the odonts with Ecuador
ON: Which are the conditions of the habitat?
RH: Cool, temperate conditions with even rainfall
and narrow temperature fluctuations.
ON: The species grow at high elevation (more than 1.500m altitude until
3.500 m altitude) however there are some intergeneric hybrids that grow
reasonable well in little warm conditions. Do you think is possible
to have intergeneric hybrids which can have a wonderful blooming under
hot or warm conditions keeping the wonderful characteristic shape of
RH: The pursuit of the warmth-tolerant odont has
been going on for more than 100 years. Most of the good growing intergenerics
are fairly close to the species, i.e. 3-4 generations at most. When
one crosses plants from warmer locations one is combining plants which
have very distant genetic relationships. Progeny from this type of breeding
often does not go on to breed well. When one looks at the huge number
of crosses breeders like George Black of England, W.W. Moir of Hawaii
and Bob Dugger in Southern California made it is really astounding.
Yet, few of these that have gone on to success. Growers such as Dr.
Howard Liebman, Tom Perlite of Golden ate Orchids and Milton Carpenter
of Everglades Orchids have done some excellent work. I believe we will
do more excellent work and tools such as colchicine, an alkaloid used
to double chromosome numbers will be useful at restoring fertility to
some of the odd, disparent crosses we make. A plant that really intrigues
me is Miltonia spectabilis. I have been knocked over by some of the
intergenerics it has made. I visited Gerald McCraith in Melbourne, Australia.
He had a hybrid names for his wife, Vuyl Ellen McCraith (spectabilis
var. bicolor x Oda Echanson). It is outstanding with branching
spikes and high flower count. Gerald passed on some advice. Most of
us have used the color form moreliana (now elevated to species
rank). Perlite and I have both used the 4n version. The problem with
moreliana is low flower count and the flowers bloom at the end of the
stems. McCraith notes the normal spectabilis 2n does not have the same
issues. When one combines it with a modern polylploid odontoglossum
or odontiodas the spectabilis influence is lessened and the problem
of low flower count overcome.
ON: Do you think that the analyses by DNA will provoke important changes
in the classification of this genus?
RH: Probably but a no-care for me. "A rose
by any other name is still as rose".
ON: What can you say to help people to cultivate this genus?
RH: Have a good income and avoid the orchid judging
systems. My profession is as an engineer and I manage a semiconductor
researchy laboratory for the University of California a Berkeley.Orchids
are my hobby. Like most plant breeders luck is an important component
in making good crosses. It pays to start with great plants and I have
those as I am a collector. All plant breeders make mistakes so it is
good to have a garbage can in the greenhouse. One gets better credit
if you throw the bad plants away before anyone else sees them. It is
fatal to try and sell them; your reputation will be lost. The most important
trait in plants is vigor. Cull the poor growers in the beginning. You
will save bench spare and never miss them. Purchase plants from reputable
growers and be wary of "specials". In the end most great breeders
have no special insight. They just work hard workers, make lots of crosses
and know what to throw away.
ON: Thank you very much, Robert Hamilton.
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