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Stop and Smell the Orchids

The Huntington’s Orchid Specialist Brandon Tam Shares his Knowledge

With The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Garden’s International Orchid Show & Sale coming up on Oct. 21, Orchid Collection Specialist and Show Director Brandon Tam talks about the upcoming event, his favorite orchid, and how he has merged his work and passion.

As Director of the International Orchid Show and an Orchid Specialist, Tam is elated about the upcoming event that will feature prized orchids from around the world. Tam said, “There will be many rare and awarded orchids at the show, brought by exhibitors and vendors from across the United States and seven foreign countries, in addition to those normally on display at The Huntington. We expect to attract particularly fine entries this year since the American Orchid Society will be holding their semi-annual Members Meeting at the show.”

Tam is part of the American Orchid Society, whose mission is “to promote the appreciation of orchids, deliver the most up-to-date, accurate, educational information about orchid culture and sponsors research and conservation initiatives to improve the outlook for orchids around the globe.”

Tam himself has contributed to the orchid collection at The Huntington, when he “quickly found out that managing two collections at the same time became a challenge. The Huntington has one of the largest Orchid Collections in the United States with more than 10,000 Orchids in the collection.” While he generously donated his collection, he feels thankful that he can visit his collection, “each and every day that I come into work.”

Although The Huntington boasts over 10,000 orchids, the world has produced over 25,000 species. Tam said, “Scientists believe that orchids may have existed since the age of the dinosaurs, and that orchids have used all of that time to spread across the earth and adapt to thousands of different environments and challenges. These millenniums of distant colonization and adaptive evolution have produced over 25,000 different orchid species, making it the most diverse plant families on earth.”

Of those 25,000, Tam’s favorite, “happens to be the Paphiopedilums, better known as ‘Lady Slipper Orchids.’ They are called this because they have a pouch on the flower that resembles a lady’s slipper.”

At the show, visitors can expect to see Paphiopedilums, as well as “thousands of the most beautiful and fascinating orchids imaginable, arranged in over 35 stunning displays exhibited by both our California orchid societies and by vendors from around the world.” Tam also said that “Visitors will be able to see and to purchase—at prices ranging from $12 and up—a huge array of orchid species and hybrids that will never appear in home improvement stores, and they will be able to talk to our 30 vendors about the best way to care for their selected plants. Orchid supplies will also be available for sale.”

The Call of the Orchid

Orchids have long been an object of aesthetic admiration: long ago, enthusiasts went on daring collecting journeys in search of rare orchid species, often risking their lives. Since then, orchid collecting has become less dangerous, more scientific. Orchids are genetically sourced, mutated, and selected to create hybrids for the breeder’s taste and demand. Today, there are an estimated 30,000 kinds of wild orchids around the world, mostly in the tropics.

But why is it that people get so hooked on the flower? In the beginning, it was the mystery that piqued curious botanists’ interest. Orchids were difficult, if not impossible, to grow and flower in a greenhouse. The mystery unfolded and revealed a fungus that enabled the seed to germinate. As a result, orchid culture today is a billion-dollar global enterprise.

After the mystery was solved, enthusiasts came along, entranced by the orchid’s many shapes, sizes and colors. Others were interested in the way orchids attract birds and insects. The bucket orchid of Coryanthes, for example, lures male bees with a perfumed oil the bees need to attract mates. As the bee struggles to escape, the orchid secretly glues pollen to the bee’s back, which will ultimately pollinate another flower and spread the Coyanthes gene.

Other orchids smell like dead meat while some imitate the color and shapes of flowers favored by butterflies. Like a siren, tempting and dangerous, the orchid has lured insects, butterflies, and researchers close for centuries.

Charles Darwin fell victim to the Orchid’s call, and in 1877 published a book devoted to “The Various Contrivances by Which Orchids Are Fertilized by Insects.” He was particularly interested in orchids that have one specific pollinator—for one orchid, that pollinator was a species of moth. His insights into co-evolution, when species rely on each other for survival, led him to foresee the discovery of a new moth: the “Predicta moth,” discovered years later, and named after Darwin posthumously.

The Huntington’s Second Annual International Orchid Show & Sale is from Oct. 21 to Oct. 23, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. The event is to be held in the Brody Botanical Center; entrance is included with general admission.

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