Like most flowering plants, orchids reproduce in two ways: sexual reproduction and vegetative propagation.
In the wild, orchids reproduce in a similar way that other plants do. Orchids are pollinated plants, and the pollen and seeds naturally spread to other areas to grow new orchids.
Orchids can also be propagated at home or in labs. Common methods for propagating orchids include rhizome division, back bulb division, repotting keikis, potting aerial roots, and stem cuttings.
What Does The Pollination Process Involve For Orchids?
In the Wild
The life cycle of an orchid is similar to other flowering plants. However, orchids are not pollinated by wind or water.
The nectar attracts a pollinator, such as a wasp or a bee, and pollen is deposited onto the insect's body. When the insect leaves the flower, it pulls the pollinia out of the anther. When the pollinator enters another flower of the same species, the pollinium will stick to the stigma of the second flower and pollinate it.
The pollination process can vary depending on the type of orchid. In some orchids, the labellum is adapted to have a color, shape, and odor which attracts male insects by mimicking a female insect. As the male insect attempts to mate with the orchid, pollination occurs. Other orchids have the ability to trap insects. The only way the insect can escape is through the anthers, which deposit pollen onto the insect.
Some orchids are self-pollinating. Most of these orchids are in cold regions where pollinators are rare. The caudicles dry up, and the pollinia fall onto the stigma.
Orchids also disperse seed pods to reproduce. Orchid seeds are light and small, which makes them ideal for traveling in the wind or attaching to animals. However, orchid seeds lack a food source, so germination in their natural habitat is unlikely unless the seeds form a mycorrhizal relationship with a fungus to help them grow.
Fun fact: orchid seeds are the tiniest seeds on Earth—about the size of a speck of dust!
In the Lab
Orchid growers have developed methods to propagate orchids without pollination, which is called vegetative propagation.
This is mainly done to shorten the long propagation process. In tissue culture, plant material is propagated. The plant material used contains the stem cells of the orchids, which are grown on whole plants in laboratories.
This asexual propagation strategy is controllable and economical. It creates genetically identical orchids that have the same properties as their mother plant. In this simple way, orchids can be produced in huge numbers.
Orchid cultivation is easy, fast, and cheap, which is why certain popular varieties of orchids are readily available in stores. Most of the commercial varieties of orchids are hybrids that are cloned using modern strategies of vegetative propagation.
Do Orchids Grow From Cuttings?
Some orchids can be propagated from cuttings.
While cuttings are the easiest way to propagate plants, some varieties of orchids won’t successfully grow from cuttings. Phalaenopsis and other single-stem orchids can be propagated from cuttings. Some multi-stem orchids like dendrobiums will sprout from cuttings, but most multi-stem orchids will not.
How To Propagate Orchids At Home
Propagating an orchid mostly requires patience since orchids are slow growers.
Before beginning, you must know if your plant is a monopodial orchid or sympodial orchid. Monopodial orchids have one tall, vertical stem with an aerial root system. Sympodial orchids grow along a horizontal stem called a rhizome.
If your orchid has multiple stems, it can be divided into several smaller plants through its rhizomes.
Inspect the orchid’s horizontal rhizome structure and include about three mature pseudobulbs per section when you cut. Find a natural node or impression along your orchid’s rhizome, and make a clean cut there with sterilized scissors. Then separate the new orchid from the old one and place the new one into a pot with well-draining orchid potting mix.
Back Bulb Division
Back bulbs are pseudobulbs that no longer produce flowers or roots.
Use clean and sharp scissors to separate back bulbs from the primary plant. Dust the plant with a fungicide or leave it out for a few days to callus over. Place the bulb in well-draining soil and water it to induce sprouting. Some may sprout quickly, while others take longer to root. Some back bulbs take years to grow into a mature orchid flower!
Repotting a Keiki
Small offshoots, called keikis, develop along the nodes of the parent plant on monopodial orchids.
They can be easily removed for repotting, but wait until the keiki has sprouted leaves and roots before removing it from the main stem. A keiki without leaves and roots won’t be able to sustain itself in a new pot. Use a pair of clean shears to separate the baby plant from the mother plant. Put the keiki in a pot with well-draining soil and be careful not to overwater it.
Trimming and Potting Aerial Roots
Aerial roots grow off main stems on monopodial orchids. They are found dangling from nodes along the primary vertical stem. Trim the aerial roots and put them in a pot to sprout new growth. Keep them in a humid environment.
Stem cutting is a common and successful propagating process. Follow the steps to grow a new orchid plant.
1. Cut the orchid
Start with a healthy orchid to increase the chances of survival for the new plant. Use an orchid that has bloomed with flowers that are starting to fade. The orchid should be done putting its energy into blooming before being propagated. If you are propagating a single-stem orchid, cut the orchid stem in half. Leave the bottom half with the roots attached in the original container. The bottom half will continue to grow into a new orchid. If you are propagating a multi-stem orchid, cut one cane from the orchid and cut the cane up into several pieces. Each cutting should contain 2-3 nodes.
2. Root the orchid cutting
To root your orchid, you need sphagnum moss or orchid potting mix. Regular potting soil is too dense for the new orchid.
If you’re using sphagnum moss to root the orchid, wrap the moss around the bottom cut end. A string can be used to gently secure the moss in place. The cuttings wrapped in moss don’t need to be sitting upright for roots to develop.
If you’re using orchid potting mix, place the bottom cut end directly into the soil. A popsicle stick can be placed next to the cutting to help it stand upright.
Water the cuttings without completely saturating them. The moss or soil should feel damp to the touch. After watering, cover the cuttings with a clear plastic bag to lock in moisture.
3. New orchid care
Place the cutting in a sunny location with indirect light. Remove the plastic bag to water when necessary. Some orchid cuttings may take up to 3 to 4 months to show signs of growth, so be patient. Once you notice new growth, you can begin fertilizing it weekly with diluted fertilizer.
Popular orchid species used in homes include cymbidiums, cattleyas, and moth orchids. Orchid plants have a reputation of being difficult to care for, but they are surprisingly simple houseplants to care for, even for beginners!
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