Odontoglossum hybrids

Robert 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 a greenhouse.

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 progeny?
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 next.

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 the flowers?
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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