Most plant seeds contain enough food to feed the growing plant in the early stages of development. Orchids, on the other hand, have very small seeds and consequently need help to get started. In the wild they have evolved a ‘symbiotic’ (or cooperative) relationship with a fungus – the fungus ‘feeds’ the orchid seed and the orchid roots protect the fungus.
The fungi in question are not the mushrooms and toadstools that we are all familiar with, but are much smaller (like moulds) and permeate every square metre of soil like an invisible web. The older and less disturbed the soil, the thicker the fungal mat – this is one of the reasons why ploughing of fields causes so much damage to orchid colonies – the orchid bulbs survive in the soil but, because the fungal mat is broken up and destroyed, the orchids often die out.
Each species of orchid binds with a particular species of fungus and to successfully propagate the orchids you must find the fungus that helps it. You can still germinate the seeds and grow the plants under laboratory conditions by feeding them using nutrient jelly and protecting them by keeping them in sterile conditions but they don’t thrive.
This is why the current progress with the Monkey Orchid has been slow. The seeds can be grown, under laboratory conditions and using very specialist equipment, but the resulting plants are weak and do not grow very vigorously.
It is for this reason that we planted our ‘test-tube’ tubers as soon as they were big enough – so that they might have a chance to bind with the wild fungus in Hartslock’s soil.