Story by Shannon Wianecki | Photo: Chris Reickert
Supermarket-variety orchids are a far cry from their feral parents. Most orchids sold in Hawai‘i are hybrids, crossbred for hardiness and reliability. But their wild relatives can be astonishing, even bizarre. At Tropical Orchid Farm in Haiku, Jeffrey Parker and Kathy Klett propagate these ancestral species.
Orchids comprise the largest family of flowering plants, with over 26,000 recognized species. As diverse as the ecosystems they inhabit, orchids thrive in Himalayan snow, Australian burrows, and Mexican rainforest canopies. They are absent only from open water and true deserts.
Many orchid species have evolved spectacular strategies for attracting pollinators. Beneath elegant white flowers the Aerangis longicalcar dangles foot-long nectar spurs, a perfect fit for a hawk moth’s sixteen-inch proboscis. The reptilian Bulbophyllum arfakianum from Papua New Guinea snaps its scaled petals shut in front, encouraging pollinators to sneak in through the side. One of Parker and Klett’s most popular species stinks. Waving filamentous, jellyfish-like blooms, the Bulbophyllum medusae lures flies with its terrible smell.
Hawai‘i claims just three native orchid species, none-too-showy wisps found alongside bogs and in the remote rainforest. Parker says that no one has succeeded in propagating them yet, though recent breakthroughs in laboratory growing mediums could change that. Species can prove more difficult to cultivate than hybrids, but Parker doesn’t think that should dissuade hobbyists.
Parker apprenticed under Roy Fukumura, a founder of the Maui Orchid Society and a world-renowned hybridizer. Parker’s mentor approved of his focus on species. Species are the source, the raw material for all hybrids. More importantly, they are fast disappearing from the wild.
For two centuries and counting, unscrupulous collectors have poached plants for the black market. Development worldwide has decimated critical habitat and scattered pollinators. When the hawk moth vanishes, so does the orchid. That’s why Parker encourages fellow orchidophiles to “go forth and grow!”
“I try to get my customers and friends to switch their orchid activities from a hobby to a scientific pursuit,” says Parker. “People maintaining orchid species in their collections will be preserving valuable genetic material as well as making new observations and mini-discoveries of their own.”
Tropical Orchid Farm