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Thoughts on Pollination by Dale Borders
Dale Borders, so far and by far our biggest contributor of seed, wrote this piece when I asked him if he'd like to share some thoughts about pollination. Last time I checked, he'd attempted pollination on at least 460 different plants in over 130 genera. -Troy

Thoughts On Pollination
by Dale Borders
Pollinating Your Flowers
Reasons For Capsule Failure
Difficult Genera
Easy Genera
Multiple Cultivars
What's In The Capsule?
Cross-contamination Of Seed
Record Keeping
What To Expect From Your Flasking Service
Pollinating Flowers Of Failing Or Moribund Plants
Enjoying Your Flowers

Pollinating your orchid flowers can be a rewarding and delightful experience sometimes muted by a variety of surmountable obstacles. If a flower is expendable remove one and dissect it to learn where all the parts are, how they respond when manipulated, and what they feel like with a toothpick. One of the biggest problems is manipulation of the pollinia; certainly a tooth pick isn't the pollination mechanism to which orchids have evolved. Insert a toothpick into the corolla, and using a slight upward pressure against the column, slowly withdraw it. Keep in mind that a 'natural' pollination of an orchid flower isn't usually a 'same flower' pollination; usually, the pollinating agent sticks it's head, beak or body into the flower, gets some stigmatic fluid on the head, beak or body, backs out of the flower, picks up the pollinia (the anther cap is suitably hinged to only open on egress of the pollinating agent), and goes to the next flower. The 'next' flower is where the pollen is deposited. If you try to remember the sequence of events for a 'natural' cross-pollination your movements should be appropriate. On ripe flowers (when gently removing the toothpick), you can often feel the increased resistance when the toothpick encounters the stigmatic cavity and the viscous fluid contained therein.

There are many reasons for a pollinated flower failing to produce a seed capsule. Quite possibly, the most common reason for failure is self sterility; some flowers just won't accept their own pollen. Flower age is another reason for failure. Many flowers may live longer than their pollen; perhaps the stigmatic fluid is lost or diluted from watering. It's possible that time of day is a significant factor in a successful pollination; certainly the time of strongest fragrance could herald receptiveness. Many flowers are just 'tricky'. Most members of the Gongorinae (Gongora, Stanhopea, Sievekingia, etc.) have a slitted aperture to the stigma that often only becomes apparent after the pollinia are removed. Small flowers are inherently difficult to pollinate because of their size and quite often the column (conduit to the ovary) may be broken in an effort to control the flower, the stigma may be damaged, or the anther cap may be confused for the pollinia. In many attempts a jeweler's head magnifier is a necessity. Poor cultural conditions may disfavor conditions for capsule maturation as well. Many plants have been treated with colchicine to induce polyploidy and concomitant vigor and size; often 'colchicined' plants are sterile.

Some genera are difficult to pollinate successfully. Members of the Oncidiinae and the genus Coelogyne seem to be especially reluctant to self pollinate. Although the previously mentioned orchids are difficult to self, there is still good reason to make attempts at selfing as capsules are occasionally produced. It's certainly possible that many ARE self-fertile, but hand pollination doesn't satisfy receptiveness criteria.

Some genera are easy to pollinate successfully. Most members of the Laeliinae (Laelia, Cattleya, Epidendrum, etc.) produce capsules freely.

Certainly, multiple cultivars (different clones) of self-sterile plants are desirable if your cultivar is self sterile. If space in your growing area is limited, exchange of pollen with the owner of a different cultivar is a good option. Cared for properly, pollen is often viable for weeks to months.

Harvesting a seed capsule is an exciting and fun culmination of your effort and time. So what's really in the capsule? Most often you'll see free-flowing seed and send it to the flasking service with justified great hopes. Occasionally, you'll find nothing inside the capsule. Even if you see what looks like seed, it may contain no embryos. If there is seed, it may be infused with the mycelia of fungus. You may want to ask your flasking service to provide you with a viability report upon receipt of the seed. If you're rebuffed in your request and you don't want to risk paying for flasking seed that can't grow, find another flasking service; you'll be charged for sowing whether the seed is viable or not.

If you find that you must prepare and dry two or more capsules at one time, it's imperative that seed from one capsule not be allowed to contaminate the seed packet of the other capsule(s). After handling a capsule it's crucially important to wash your hands, any tools used in the preparation of the capsule, and any vessels previously used for seed drying with soap and water. Use a paper towel or a fresh hand towel for drying. Seed of many genera (Calanthe especially) is extremely light and easily becomes airborne with the slightest breeze. If just a few seed germinate in a flask, the possibility exists that the flasked seed is actually sterile and contamination occurred from seed being dried nearby. Certainly the commercial value, and to a lesser extent the hobbyist value, of such flasks would be greatly reduced.

It's an onerous task and easily deferred, but record keeping is important. If a pollination attempt fails you may want to recall flower age, number of flowers pollinated, and date of the previous attempt. If your pollination attempt is successful, age to maturity, quantity of seed, and quality of seed could be recorded entries. If you attempt another capsule, maturation time of the first capsule is of importance. Brightly colored stringed baggage tags loosely attached to the pollinated flowers with the date of pollination, number of flowers pollinated, and parents, make your inspection rounds quicker, easier, and more complete if you have several capsules maturing.

This varies a lot, but possibly you'll want to get viability checking when they receive the seed, either by microscopic examination for embryos (quick) or by tetrazolium staining (takes days), and certainly get periodic reports about germination and growth. Normally you will pay to have the seed sown, then later pay a deposit for making reflasks/replates, though there are exceptions, such as with Meyers' programs.

Quite often orchids initiate an inflorescence as a response to severe stress prior to death. A quandary then arises: should you attempt to set a seed capsule? will the plant be able to support a capsule? will the effort necessary to support a capsule kill the plant? HELP!!!!! Certainly, the value and replaceability of the plant should be considered first. If the plant is valuable (for whatever reason) assess the vigor of the plant as best you can and proceed on your best hunch. Things to consider are root health, past performance and vigor of the plant, and proximity of the next growth cycle. If pests have caused the decline of your plant, remain vigilant to ensure that re-infestation doesn't occur; weakened plants are disease prone. If you decide to pollinate, remove all flowers except the flower(s) pollinated. Another option is to contact a tissue culture lab for possible propagation.

When we pollinate a flower it usually wilts in a few hours to a few days as a response. Your pollination attempt then is an ideal time to dissect your flower (leaving reproductive elements undamaged and intact) and truly enjoy a smaller but equally enjoyable aspect of your flower. Normally we only see the outer aspect of our flowers but sometimes the truly remarkable views are within. A whole new range of hairs, calluses, colors, fringes, spots, dots and stripes await us if we sacrifice a flower to curiosity and a hand lens. Even if we don't pollinate a flower, removing one to dissect simply to get the same view a pollinator gets is worth more than the flower. And it'll still bloom again the next season.


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