Thursday, September 18, 2008

The Queen of Orchidaceous Plants

A rare orchid the size of a Volkswagen Beetle is blooming for the second time ever at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden, a blessed event that has spurred envy among the handful of orchid growers who will even try to grow a plant this big.

Considered “The Queen of Orchidaceous Plants,” and one of the world’s largest orchids, this particular Grammatophyllum speciosum is 12 feet in diameter and weighs about 200 pounds. It last bloomed in 2003 and has four huge flower spikes, at least one of which should remain in bloom for the next week or two, said David Horak, curator of the garden’s orchid collection.

Known as the tiger or leopard orchid, the plant is native to Malaysia, Sumatra and New Guinea, where it grows in the crotches of trees more than 100 feet in the air. Plants can weigh up to two tons.

“There are all kinds of anecdotal stories about workers being killed trying to remove one from a tree,” Mr. Horak said.

If it is rare in nature, this Gulliver of the garden world is even rarer in captivity, because very few people or institutions can afford to grow it.

Mr. Horak bought the plant 10 years ago for $75 at an auction from the widow of Don Richardson, who was the orchid grower for Greentree, the Whitney estate on Long Island. It now hangs in a 30-inch square basket, 15 feet in the air above a pond in the Robert W. Wilson Aquatic House, part of the Steinhardt Conservatory.

As plants go, it is fairly high-maintenance, he said. It is watered every sunny day, and fed two or three times a week.

The last time we potted it, it took five people and a rope and pulley to lower it into the current basket. They resent being repotted, and for some time after we repotted it, it kind of sulked. It didn’t grow very well for a couple years.

In an August 2007 article in orchids, the bulletin of the American Orchid Society, Erich E. Michel, the operations manager of the Hoosier Orchids in Indianapolis, describes trying to get a Grammatophyllum to bloom. In the essay, titled “I Need to Grow a Giant Orchid” (a need his wife as defined as “childish competitive dementia”), he described trying to coax blooms from the plant, which he variously refers to as “the beast” and “the monster.”

tiger orchidThe orchid is about 12 feet in diameter and weighs about 200 pounds. At least one flower spike should remain in bloom for a week or two. (Photo: Kate Blumm/Brooklyn Botanic Garden)

The plant’s spiny rootlets, which dry and harden until they are thornlike, catch plant and animal litter from above and form “a self-made composter” that helps feed the plant.

“These barbed roots were just one way the plant could hurt you,” he writes, then describes how, after nine years of waiting, the growers decided to force the plant to bloom, by starving it. “We were going to make it think it was going to die,” he wrote.

He succeeded in 2004, and again in 2007, when the plant produced eight flower spikes. That year, he decided to move it to the Garfield Park Conservatory in Indianapolis, which required four people to hold the pot and three to hold the plant’s stems.

The Brooklyn orchid’s next feat will be to produce a seed capsule the size of a Nerf football, Mr. Horak said. It will have about two million dustlike seeds in it, which may be offered to a commercial firm or other institution that wants to try growing its own. The seeds are considered an aphrodisiac in some circles, Mr. Michel wrote.

Unlike Audrey Junior, the voracious plant from "The Litle Shop of Horrors" the Brooklyn plant has not been named, Mr. Horak said.

“On any given day, if it’s creating trouble, it gets names nobody wants to hear,” he said.



Anonymous said...

Wow, I have never realized orchids can be that big!

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