Hybridizing for Fragrance in Compact Cattleya Orchids
Fragrance is a bonus to the beautiful orchid flowers in collections. Often, the first hint of an orchid in bloom is its perfume. We smell it before we see it.
Orchids produce flowers for reproduction. This is Mother Nature's plan for the survival of species in the wild. Fragrance is just one trick used to attract specific pollinators. Bright colors and patterns, as well as unique flower shapes that mimic insects, are sophisticated techniques to attract attention.
Man is responsible for producing nearly all of the orchids in collections. Breeders have the ability to combine orchids from every part of our earth to create orchids impossible in nature. Orchidists mix orchids from every latitute, altitude, season and climate all over the world.
The goals in orchid breeding are simple but challenging. Millions of hobbyists grow orchids in their homes in windows or under artificial lights for most of the year. More than one basement has been miraculously transformed into a year-round orchid show. Truly amazing! These limited spaces and lower humidity demand that breeders create compact plants that bloom easily and frequently and tolerate these less than ideal conditions. We also want flowers with bright colors, long-lasting blooms, good growth habits, and vigor. Adding fragrance to this "ideal" orchid is an incredible task. It is trial and error and it takes years to smell the results!
Mother Nature has rules, in other words obstacles, for producing "ideal" orchid.
Approximately 60% of orchids attract insects for pollination. Fragrances attract specific insects before they can see the flower. Bees like sweet and spicy. Flies are attracted by - well, use your imagination. Moths are active at night and pollinate Brassavola nodosa (Lady of the Night) and Brassavola digbyana. Charles Darwin predicted a moth was the pollinaotr of Angraecum sesquipedale, a vandaceous species native to Madagascar. The nectar is in a spur one foot long! Forty years later this moth with a foot long proboscis was discovered. Who knew that a moth could smell?
It seems a brightly colored flower without fragrance could be easily hybridized with a sweet smelling orchid with the result being a bright, perfumed orchid. If only it were simple! Generally, we don't understand how or why fragrance is transmitted. Sometimes the pollen (male contributor) carries it. Other times it's carried by the pod parent (female). Even after several generations, not all offspring will be fragrant. The ones that are fragrant do not have the same fragrance or the same strength of fragrance.
One current technique is to first combine a compact orchid of vibrant colors with a large, standard cattleya hybrid with delicious fragrance. Then the best flower with fragrance is selected and used in the breeding program to produce a generation of "ideal" orchids.
Hybridizing for fragrance in compact cattleya hybrids is in its second generation. This means that breeders are 12 to 15 years into the process of producing this "ideal" orchid. Great progress is being made. There are some compact cattleya hybrids now that are fragrant, such as the one pictured at the top of this article: Lc. Aloha Case 'Hawaiian Style". Many more are on their way with perhaps the best yet to come!
For further reading, National Geographic, April 1971, "The Exquisite Orchids." This article is a must.