Cloning orchids: Bringing beauty to the masses

    Among the roses and tulips at the Philadelphia International Flower Show is something one might not expect to see: a laboratory. The microscope and fume hood pay homage to the French flower growers Vacherot and Lecoufle,  the first to set up a commercial orchid cloning operation.

    New Jersey orchid grower Walter Off’s uncle went to the French laboratories in the 1960s to learn the science of orchid cloning, which, according to Off, put the exotic flower within reach of the average buyer.

    “We’ve often said that cloning revolutionized the entire orchid industry,” Off said. “They became available to the blue-collar person, and not just kings and queens.”

    Off, co-owner of Waldor Orchids in Linwood, N.J., estimates that about 80 percent of all orchids sold today are clones. Clones take about four to five years to flower, compared with six to eight for seedlings. They also greatly increase the yield from each plant.

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    “One plant could be a thousand plants instead of four plants ” said Nancy Burke, an expert on tissue culturing who helped set up the mock lab.

    To clone a plant, flower growers start with a perfect, virus-free orchid. At the base, down by the soil, there is a bulb-shaped growth where leaves emanate. That’s where the equivalent of a flower embryo lives.

    “Think of an onion, and way inside of the center of the onion, if you had to take off seven layers, that’s where you’d find the undifferentiated genetic material,” Burke said.

    A tiny sample of those undifferentiated cells goes into a beaker with a nutrient-rich gelatin-like substance. More cells grow. They are transferred to another beaker with different nutrients that tell those cells to make shoots and roots. A third beaker has charcoal in it that mimics soil, so the roots know which way to point. Finally, the “tissue culture babies” are ready to be planted in finely ground bark.

    Burke said the whole process takes up to three years, but the resulting plants retain the exact beauty of the mother plant.

    The Philadelphia International Flower Show runs Sunday through March 13 at the  Convention Center.

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