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A gentle introduction to orchid genetics

Ask any grower about potting media, fertilizer, water, or what should win an award, and no doubt you’ll get plenty of opinions, speculation, and anecdotes.  (This site is no exception.)  But ask about genetics, and you’ll get one of two kinds of responses: more opinions, speculation, and anecdotes, or a rapid plunge into murky technical terminology that might confuse you further.



Genetics is one of those topics that most of us orchid lovers think that we know, or think we ought to know, but…well, we’re not really sure that we know it as well as we think.  Still, plowing through a genetics textbook on a weekend just doesn’t seem as exciting as, say, picking mealy bugs off your plants.  Well, I make no claim to being an orchid expert, or expert grower, nor do I have particular expertise in plant biology.  I do have some training in genetics, though, and I offer a gentle introduction to fellow orchid enthusiasts in the hope that some concepts will become more clear, and you can deepen your understanding of what your orchids do down at the molecular level.  If that sounds intimidating, fear not!


Humans have manipulated genetics in one form or another since we first bred animals for work or food.  Manipulation of plants likely happened at around the same time, as growers chose breeding stock based on certain desirable traits (size, growth rate, hardiness, etc.) that they wished to see in the offspring.  It is this selection of traits that underlies all plant and animal breeding.  Indeed, the choosing of desirable traits extends all the way into humans – just ask your parents why they married each other, or what attracts you to your spouse/boyfriend/girlfriend.  Tall?  Handsome?  Intelligent?  Child-bearing potential?  No doubt there are some traits that you yourself are selecting for (even if you don’t want to produce offspring).


Obviously, people have known from time immemorial that traits of the parents get passed to the offspring, whether the parents were people, livestock, or crops.  Parents with desirable traits were mated, and it was hoped that the offspring would have better traits.


But it wasn’t until the mid-1800s that someone started to figure out the rules governing the inheritance of traits.  An Augustinian abbot, Gregor Mendel, conducted plant cross experiments with Pisum  sativa, the pea plant.  This plant proved quite useful in his experiments for several reasons:


1)      It grew easily and quickly, enabling Mendel to grow large, statistically useful numbers of plants from which he could draw solid conclusions.

2)      Matings (crosses) between individuals were simple to perform.

3)      Different traits were easily distinguished.  Rather than looking at traits that might appear intermediate or blended (like certain colors), the traits he picked to study were relatively unambiguous. 


How do traits “happen”?  Where do they come from?  The answer, of course, is that traits come from genes.  So what are genes?

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