Orchid seeds are tiny dust-like specks in pods. Here's a pod I pulled
open to photograph. It was completely full of the little white seeds,
but the breeze blew most of them away as soon as I opened it.
Here are some orchid seeds on a penny:
You can find the seeds; that's
the easy part. Here's the hard part. Orchid seeds don't tend to sprout
unless their favorite fungus is present, and invades the seed coat. Odd,
huh? I thought so too. Apparently, the fungus provides nutrients to the
orchid seed that it needs to sprout. Fungi that have a symbiotic
relationship with orchids are called mycorrhizal fungi.
There's a way around needing the fungus, but you really
have to WANT to grow orchids from seed to do it; it's a LOT of effort.
You can grow them on agar, which is like seaweed jello. I bought mine
online. It's a nutrient agar that contains everything the orchids need
to sprout and grow.
The catch is that the nutrients the orchids need support
the growth of a wide variety of other things, so if you don't plant them
on the agar in a sterile environment, you get interesting molds,
but no orchids.
To get around that, you'll need the agar, a glove box, a big pressure cooker,
lots of aluminum foil, bleach, lysol spray, glass jars with metal lids,
JB Weld, copper tubing, a tubing bender, cotton, time, patience...
The glove box above is made of plexiglass, caulk, duct tape, plastic,
and gloves. It was a fine starter box, but not what you want to use if
you're going to do a lot of flasking.
The flasks, or in my case jars, are just any jar with a twist on metal lid that I saved from cooking. I
used copper tubing from the local hardware store; it's the same type of
tubing that runs the water to an ice maker. The tubing bender wasn't
cheap, but it did a nice job of curving the tube.
A quick moment with a big nail and a hammer was enough to punch through
the center of the lid, then I jammed the tubing through the hole, and sealed up both sides with JB Weld.
It drips while it dries - watch where you put it!
Finally I stuffed a little cotton deep into both ends of the
tube (with a length of sturdy coat hanger) so the air would flow but the
dust and spores would get caught on the cotton. I got the idea from
Louis Pasteur's swan-neck flask experiments on germ theory.
Then I was ready to cook up the agar and pour a bit of it into each
jar. Next I set the lids gently on top (not twisted down), and wrapped
each jar in foil with the opening at the bottom (not open really, the
folded together part at the bottom.) I also wrapped my tools, wet rags,
and a jar of extra water.
I pressure cooked the jars ect. at 10psi long enough to get them
sterile. After they cooled enough to be warm, but not hot, I took them
outside (all covered in a bowl of shallow bleach water) and loaded the
glove box (note the changes to the box over time.)
Everything that went into the box got dipped in strong bleach water
first. Once I had it loaded and sealed, I stuck my hands in the gloves
and sprayed it top to bottom with both lysol and bleach water. The fumes
were horrible, which is why I did the whole set-up outside. I let it sit
for 10 minutes or so to give the bleach time to kill spores, and for the
water to dribble to the bottom (where I had a thick honeycomb rubber
floor mat to act as a drain.)
Last, I carefully scrubbed the sealed
orchid seed pods in bleach water, rinsed them in sterile water, cut them
open, and sprinkled some seeds into each jar. Look up aseptic technique
and the difference between sterile and disinfected before you even think
of attempting this!
Then I twisted my lids on, opened the box, put the jars on a
windowsill, and waited.
Eventually I was rewarded by the sight of tiny orchid protocorms
developing on the agar:
Different orchids took different amounts of time, but generally within a
couple weeks of sewing the seeds I could see the tiny seed specks puff
and green, and begin to extend their first little nub of a root. At that
stage they're called a protocorm.
Then they just sat in the jar
growing until they were big enough to deflask (take out and try to keep
alive outside that perfect growing environment.)
I did a fabulous job of figuring out how to germinate and grow the
orchids in my homemade jars and glove box (I did lose a few jars to
mold, but once I flasked a few batches my aseptic techniques got better
and I didn't get much contamination at all; you have to be really really
careful when you prep and flask.), but once I took them out of
the jars I had a hard time keeping them alive. I didn't have a spray
system set up to keep them moist while I was at work, then hurricanes took
out my shade trees, and I gave up on flasking my own orchids, at least
until I figure out how to keep them going after I deflask them. It was
tremendous fun to have done it though.