An orchid enthusiast in Suffolk agreed to let me collect some seed this year from some of the rarer plants in his collection. I said that they might need to be hand-pollinated, so he invited me along to see them and do some pollination. The garden is packed with orchids; Bee, Pyramidal, Common spotted and Twayblade grow in profusion and are naturally occurring. These sparked an interest so he then bought some native orchids including Man, Military and Lesser butterfly.
These are the ones I would like to collect some seed from and I don’t want to rely on the local insects because I don’t want the Man crossing with Military or Great butterfly crossing with the Lesser.
The method involves teasing out the sticky pollen clumps (pollinia) with a cocktail stick. They look like a minute yellow or green lollypop and they jump out and stick themselves to the end of the cocktail stick, just as they would jump and stick to the head of a bee. You then transfer the pollinia to the column of another flower, preferably on another plant for genetic diversity.
It’s fiddly. You need to hold the flower in one hand, the cocktail stick in the other and a magnifying glass in….oh, not enough hands. Also you need to be able to sit on the ground without squashing any other orchids and move from plant to plant with a 1mm yellow lollypop balanced on the end of a cocktail stick. 30 years of yoga practice have not adequately prepared me for this.
The Military orchids have been a disappointment. Nine of the original 10 have failed to come up this year (probably dead) and the last one came into flower unusually early in mid-April and the flower head looks a bit squashed and contorted. Last year it looked fine, so it’s not a genetic problem, most likely due to drought as east Anglia has had a very dry winter and spring. The pollinia were not well formed and left an oily grey blob on the stick, so I am not expecting it to set seed.
The Man orchid is much better, nice springy yellow pollinia and the lower ovaries which I pollinated in April, seem to be swelling nicely. The Lesser butterfies only had 4 flowers open when I visited, so I did what I could and I am hoping for some seed later in the summer.
After pollination the flower fades, sometimes it closes up and twists upwards and the ovary, set behind the petals, starts to swell. It takes a least 4 weeks for orchid seed to develop and some species take 8 to 10 weeks. Many people do not realise that this takes so long and they think that it’s ok to cut their meadow or verges once the flowers have faded. It’s not just orchids, all plants take time for their seed to mature and ripen.
The seed is mature when the pod starts to turn from green to brown and ideally I would collect it before the pod turns completely brown and splits open. Once split the seed may become contaminated with viruses which cannot be killed off later in the lab.
If I manage to get seed from these 3 rarities I will dry it by enclosing it in a container of oven-dried rice. Then I store it in small glass, airtight jars in the fridge until I am ready to use it. It keeps like this for many years. Then I can start to discover how to grow them in the lab. That’s another story.