National Geographic : 1971 Apr
full-size plant, an identical copy of the origi nal (pages 488-9). It is now possible to reproduce an orchid plant identically and infinitely, copy after copy, like an image reflected endlessly in a series of mirrors. In theory there is no limit; one can make ten, a hundred, a million plants. Meristem culture has turned the orchid world upside down. When I talked to M. Le coufle, the first to place Professor Morel's discovery on a production basis, he told me: "You can see the advantages. Let us say you have a very special hybrid; everyone wants one like it. You can't grow it from seed, as hybrids rarely breed true. Most offspring revert to characteristics of their ancestors. "Heretofore the only way to make more plants from it was to divide the plant itself each time it put out a new growth. This way we might get one or two new plants a year, that would cost $150, $500, or even more. Meristem can give you exact copies of the finest plants in the world for about $10." The technique offers other dramatic ad vantages. For one, plants grown by meristem culture mature faster than those grown by conventional methods. And now cut-flower growers can easily supply choice orchids at periods of peak demand-Christmas, Easter, and other holidays. The grower simply se lects plants that blossom precisely on time and meristems them, making thousands of duplicates. Shriveled Plants Launch a Lifetime Passion But all this science-fiction side of orchids was far in the future in the classic days of wild-plant collecting. The giant whose shad ow stretched across the whole Victorian Age of orchid hunting was Frederick Sander, a naturalized Briton of German birth whose name is commemorated in a dozen species of orchids and scores of hybrids. He started in England as a seedsman, but when one day he found a discarded lot of shriveled orchids under a bench, a lifetime passion took root. In the decade before the turn of the century, the House of Sander rose in an imposing glitter of glass and maze of pipes in the old cathedral city of St. Albans. A private railway spur led to the heart of the orchid-growing world. Sander's grandson David, editor of The Orchid Review, told me: "Alighting visitors stepped directly into a great conservatory filled with palms. A top hatted foreman led them down a corridor to (Continued on page 498) Detectives for science identify flowers sent by growers and collectors around the world to HarvardUniversity's OrchidHerbarium of Oakes Ames, named for its botanistfounder. Curator Dr. Leslie Garay (foreground)and Research Associate Dr. Herman R. Sweet consult the herbarium's collection of 100,000 preserved specimens and 5,000 library volumes. Dr. Garay estimates that as many as 35,000 species of orchids are known and that others still await discovery.