The state of orchids in the wild, brought home

The Coalition for Orchid Species' annual symposium Aug. 2 brought speakers from California, Texas, New York and Miami to the Garden House. About 80 people happily spent hours focusing on their favorite topic: orchids that occur in the wild. Because of habitat destruction, orchid species are sought by growers and collectors looking for increasingly rare plants. COS was organized in 1990 to stress conservation and educate the public about the diversity of the flowers found in nature.

Lee Moore


Lee Moore from Miami, who started growing orchids in the 1950s, used slides from the 1950s and ‘60s to transport the crowd into the jungles of Peru, Nicaragua and Bolivia. Those were days when orchid collecting from the wild was legal and adventuresome. (CITES, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species, which was ratified in 1974, prohibits collecting orchids and other endangered plants from the wild.)  Moore, who has a nursery in Peru, discovered many bromeliads and orchids now bearing his name, such as Cattleya mooreana and Catasetum mooreanum. Today, he stressed, it is even illegal to collect orchids from the wild when the wild is being cut and burned for agriculture and illegal timber harvesting.

Moore was with orchid grower Michael Kovach in Peru when they were shown the huge rose-lavender slipper orchid now called Phragmipedium kovachii  in 2004. The orchid was brought back to the United States by Kovach, identified in Sarasota at Marie Selby Botanical Gardens, and then catapulted into orchid history with the arrest of Kovach for orchid smuggling. That is ancient history (Kovach was given two years probation and fined $1,000), and the rose-purple flower has since been shown in Peru orchid shows. Peru has allowed the export of some lab- and nursery-grown plants. New Yorker Glen Decker, who specializes in slippers at his commercial nursery Piping Rock Orchids, spoke about many South American slipper species, including Phrag. kovachii, which he grows and uses in his orchid breeding program. The largest Phrag. kovachii  flower  to date measured 9 ½ inches across, he said, making its size as well as its color desirable for creating hybrids. Poachers cleaned out the plants from their habitat not long after the discovery, said Decker, who traveled to Peru to see it with another slipper specialist, Harold Koopowitz. “There were 3,000 plants there and we were offered them for $10,000. We couldn’t buy them because it’s illegal to collect orchids from the wild in Peru.’’

Poaching also happened to the Peru habitat where Phrag. besseae was discovered in 1981. Libby Besse of Sarasota found the small red slipper orchid. Because a red slipper orchid had never been seen before, the plant caused a sensation and reignited interest in slipper orchids around the world. Decker said that some 20 years after the rocky habitat of besseae in the eastern Andes was stripped of plants, a few are beginning to reappear. But often, he said, poachers will burn an area after ripping out orchids so seedlings won’t grow, making their illegal orchids even more valuable.

Neither Phrag. besseae nor Phrag. kovachii can be grown in Miami because the nights are too hot, Decker said. But South American slippers without vivid color grow well here. Such phrags include Phrag. lindleyanum, Phrag. caudatum, Phrag. hirtzii, Phrag. wallisii  and Phrag. pearcei.  The best advice for phrags in South Florida, he said, is to set plants in saucers of water, or grow them with vandas and water them twice daily.  (Joyce Kelly and Larry Cox, two expert  slipper growers in Miami-Dade, do not grow their phrags sitting in water, but rather double the amount of water-holding material in their growing mix.)

Manuel Aybar flew in from Houston to talk about the orchids of his native country, Dominican Republic, including many Epidendrum species. Epidendrum rigidum, Epi. nocturnum, and Epi. ciliare are found in many a South Florida orchid collection, but not Epi. wrightii, which is a bright orange-red species found only in the Dominican Republic.  That country does not yet have commercial orchid nurseries with sophisticated propagation and export capabilities, he said. Another bright orange orchid that is endemic to Hispaniola is Neocogniauxia hexaptera, which is pollinated by hummingbirds.

Tolumnia is a genus of miniature orchids that includes several species from Dominican Republic. Among them are Tolumnia calochilum, with a lemon-scented yellow flower; Tolu. henekenii,  which Aybar called the miniature tarantula orchid because of its resemblance to a spider (it now is Hispaniella henekenii), and Tolu. variegata, “which is found everywhere in the Dominican Republic and ranges in color from lavender to white.” Quisqueya is a genus that bears the Indian name for Hispaniola.

Dry-growing tolumnias, which most people in the audience had tried and killed, should be grown in a 3-inch pot with ½-inch pieces of gravel as a medium, Aybar said, to keep from over watering them.

 Finally, Weyman Bussey, who grew up in Belle Glade but now lives in California, talked about his passion, Mexican orchid species. Many of species that used to be classified as Oncidium now are called Trichocentrum, and include Trichocentrum cebolleta,  Trctm. ascends, Trctm. luridum and Trctm. andrianum, all Mexican. Two especially attractive Mexican species are Sobralia macrantha, a rosy purple flower, and Sobralia xantholeuca, which is yellow.

Bussey’s advice for growing orchid species: Remember that orchids are people, too. “Think of what makes you comfortable and give that to your orchid,’’ he said. Orchid needs are water, air, nutrition, the right temperature and sunlight.

Breakfast buffet of fresh fruit
and pastries.
Buying orchids was a big part of the day.