The Coryopedilum Chronicles II - Deflasking the old fashioned way

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May 14, 2017
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Dallas, TX
The Coryopedilum Chronicles II – Deflasking the old fashioned way

These Chronicles document the deflasking and growing out of 2 flasks each of Paphiopedilum adductum v. anitum, platyphyllum, randsii, rothschildianum and sanderianum. One flask of each has been deflasked “the old fashioned way” as discussed below. The events related to Chronicles III- putting flasks with agar directly into compots, and Chronicles IV- potting deflasked plants, have already taken place- but will be reported over the next week.

Deflasking the old fashioned way means undertaking a process in which you attempt to separate individual seedlings and remove as much agar as possible. The seed pod of an orchid can yield millions of seeds, as fine as dust. Of those millions, a handful may someday reach maturity. The flasking process, as it has evolved over the past 100 years, is intended to provide a commercially viable return on germination. It is the one aspect of orchid cultivation that is completely removed from the natural process. The intent of deflasking the old fashioned way is to, as quickly as possible, get orchids back to a more natural growth cycle.

Additionally, there are many advantages to this approach. For starters, you can easily grade the plants and put plants of similar size and root growth in the same pot- and thus adjust your care of individual compots accordingly to meet specific needs. You can also do a more thorough job of removing plants, or cutting specific leaves, that may be showing signs of rot that could spread rapidly if unchecked. This method makes it possible to collect very small seedlings or protocorm masses that are sprouting- but rootless- and either reflask them or put them in partially sealed containers to maximize potential yield on the flask. And finally, with this method you can pot up compots that are easier to break up later for individual potting.

The trouble is that the “old fashioned way” hearkens back to a time when Cattleyas and Phalaenopsis drove much advice on growing techniques. Paphiopedilums are far more delicate out of flask, plus their rooting works a bit differently at this stage. In flask, the roots of Cattleya and Phalaenopsis Alliance plants are much as the same as in the adult stage. Not so with Paphiopedilums. The first roots, or “flask roots” a Paph generates are relatively thin and wiry- and completely smooth. However, as they grow in flask, Paphs will also often begin to develop thicker and fuzzier roots more akin to what you will see with adult plants. These are obviously crucial, but they are also incredibly weighty relative to the size of the plants, adhere to each other quite strongly, and break quite easily when you are attempting to extract the plants from the agar and each other.

Before we dive into the Paph flasks, let me please show you an example of what I am talking about. Here is a flask of C. trianae. I got this last week from Sunset Valley Orchids. It is above average in terms of root growth, but not exactly uncommon,

This flask appears quite daunting, but in fact it took about 8 minutes to separate the seedlings individually. The process is quite simple- a brief soak to soften the roots, and then use your fingers to work out all of the agar. Once that is done, slowly but firmly insert a finger up through the middle of the root mass and use your other fingers to pull apart the entire mass on one side leaving you with a long chain of plants as follows,

From there, pulling apart the individual plants is quite fast. In this rough process I broke off a total of six roots- all from larger plants which had multiple large roots circling the inner rim of the flask. And here is one of the larger plants to show you that one lost root or two is not a big deal,

The fast and rough process I described with C. trianae above cannot be done with any Paphiopedilum I have ever worked with, and if you tried- you would likely destroy at least half of the plants. To undertake the process of individually separating plants in a Paph flask takes anywhere from 10 to 45 minutes, depending on how many fuzzy roots have grown in and intertwined with each other, and the inevitable root loss even at this slower pace is likely to have a more significant impact on individual plants since the number and size of roots per plant is going to be far less, on average, than for Cattleyas or Phalaenopsis.

Hence, I think, the evolution of the agar-intact compotting process in the orchid world. That will be explored in Chronicles III. For now, I present the old fashioned method because it does have its merits as noted above, and there are times where- in my opinion- it is the only way to go.

One final note before the individual posts on dealing with each species covered in these Chronicles- patience is key to success in the deflasking process, and that begins with working in an environment that is ergonomically suited to you. Deflasking is tedious and detailed work. There is a great deal of satisfaction in pondering and mastering those details, and a great deal of muscle memory skill building that will make the process surprisingly intuitive over time. The best advice anyone can give you is to set up your deflasking area in such a manner that you can work comfortably with minimal physical strain.

Paphiopedilum sanderianum – inspiration for a new tool

The first Chronicles I ever wrote were for sanderianum, so it seemed a good place to start. And I started off just as I did in the past- using my fingers to gently pull away the agar until I could gently pull apart the mass of plants on one edge to turn a circle of plants into a long chain of plants easier to separate. Here is that process underway,

Once I got to that point, I would gently scrape downward with my finger to remove agar from around each individual plant as follows,

This gave the expected outcome in about 20 minutes time as these plants had mostly flask roots. However, a good number of roots were lost or broken- I would say about a dozen- and so I stopped at this point for a couple of days to really give some thought to how to make the old fashioned way a little better. Happily now that everyone is shipping plants in flask with some filler on top, it is very easy to just remove the filler and take your time getting around to deflasking. That is a huge change in the marketplace actually, all for the better.

Anyhow- after some thinking- I came up with a homemade tool using a single piece of florist wire. You simply fold over and twist a few inches of the wire- leaving a small loop at the end. This small loop is then used to scrape away agar in smaller quantities. It does go a bit slower, but root loss was negligible for all the rest of the flasks I handled the old fashioned way. A most elegant solution- and here it is in action on the rothschildianum flask,

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Paphiopedilum randsii – handling a flask with modest root growth

All the flasks I received for this exercise were in great condition and showed great promise, but with the inevitability of comparison- I have to say the randsii are the ones that will keep me worried at night for the next few weeks.

This was not unexpected. I have found over the years that the closer, generationally, a species seeded and flasked in cultivation is to wild-collected plants, the more difficult they are to grow- with vigorous root growth being the greatest challenge. It was true with sanderianum 20 years ago, with adductum and tigrinum 10 years ago (tigrinum was the only 100% loss disaster I have ever experienced), and while these randsii are not as delicate, the root growth on these is moving along very slowly.

Here are the plants freshly deflasked- and you will note there is some rot plus some yellowing spots on the leaves (but I have seen far worse in the past- this is really not so bad and I dealt with it by cutting off portions of the leaves and applying cinnamon to cut edges),

The good news is that the old fashioned approach, with my new tool in hand at least, is very easy to undertake. The caution is that you really have to aim for 100% root preservation- so no room for error. And you can tell there has been minimal root growth because the plants themselves have very good leaf growth but in examining the flask agar there are almost no roots showing growing around the edges.

In this situation it is best to set the plants and agar on the table and start chipping away. If you work the agar off with your hands or any tool while holding it in mid-air, the agar will break apart very quickly since there are few roots- and the weight of the agar pieces as they separate can very easily break any roots that cross any point where the agar separates. Here is the starting point,

As you go slowly along, plants will begin to come off along with the agar- and just gently continue the process taking care to ensure that you strip agar from the main clump where roots from the separating plants are still anchored,

And here is the final result for a handful of the seedlings from this flask. Note the small size of the root mass relative to the leaves. Any of you who have worked with Paphs for a long time have seen this before- but for those who are used to deflasking other common genera or Paphs that have been in cultivation for long periods- this can be a bit of a shocking sight,

Paphiopedilum adductum v. anitum – handling a flask with good root growth but few fuzzy roots

The adductum were a very pleasant surprise compared to my first attempt at these about 10 years ago. The plants were on the pale side, but the leaves were strong and did not weaken dramatically when sitting out in the open air for a few days until they were potted.

In the grand scheme of things- these were a step ahead of the randsii in terms of root growth, with more flask roots and some fuzzy roots. So here I was more comfortable holding the flask up in midair so I could scrape away with the florist wire tool more quickly- breaking up the entire flask in short order.

That said, there was one moment where I found myself with 3 small seedlings in a single large chunk of agar as the whole flask broke apart into sections. When this happened, I immediately set that chunk down on the table and scraped away at the agar while it sat there- the slowest approach, but essential here since it was obvious the weight of the agar would break roots if I continued to hold the piece in mid-air to do my work. Here is that section before any scraping was done,

Scraping process underway,

End result- three happy seedlings with roots intact, but note just how few roots were hiding in that big clump of agar,

One more thing with this adductum flask that you will encounter sometimes- a situation where one plant has grown out a very substantial single fuzzy root that adheres itself to several other plants. Best to put this group of plants in compot as-is and not try to separate them now. As the photo shows- there are several brand new live leads in this clump of new fuzzy roots. No good comes of risking any of those leads being broken in handling. I have tried in similar situations in the past to separate clumps like this, and the loss of a plant or two is almost inevitable. Better to do it later when each of the plants has multiple roots such that the loss or a root or two will not be fatal,

And on a final note- one small disaster. One of the larger seedlings with one leaf cut to remove a brown spot leaving only one large new leaf. Without thinking, I held it by that large leaf when potting, and twisted the plant when not paying attention as going for some potting mix. The result- leaf broken near the base, and the plant is a loss. This is inevitable at times- we are all human- but I point it out to show that while this entire process is not all that difficult, you are dealing with plants at a very delicate stage in life.

Paphiopedilum platyphyllum – as easy as it gets

These deflasked like a dream. The other Paphs in this Chronicle were grown in an agar that is quite stiff and not quickly dissolved in water. Not so here- a few swishes in water is all it took to remove most of the agar,

Also, the plants had very healthy flask root systems, but few fuzzy roots- so the flask was very easily separated in two,

And from there- picking out individual plants was easy. This is a key point to remember- once you can separate a flask of orchids into two separate sections- or break it apart into a single long chain- most of the heavy lifting is done,

Only one root lost on this flask- and it took about 5 minutes to separate all the plants. Agar is a very specific study all its down, and deflasking is merely manual labor. So I do not foresee a world in which agar is modified purely to make deflasking easier- but it is awfully nice when the deflasking process is this seamless.

Paphiopedilum rothschildianum – the price of success

Rothschildianum is a truly remarkable species- I think one of the most important in the entire history of orchid hybridization. As with the other Coryopedilums- it certainly took quite a long time to become an easy and vigorous plant in cultivation. I am sure many of you remember the days of $10 per inch for seedlings, and the large greenhouse full of plants from one of the first successful sibling crosses in cultivation which yielded many great cultivars as well as a vast ocean of plants that never bloomed.

All that has changed- and handling rothschildianum out of flask comes with all of the aggravation and necessary extra care of any orchid that grows with magnificent vigor yet still retains some of the delicacy in youth that is a reality with any Paphiopedilum.

Generally speaking when dealing with the latest and greatest in rothschildianum breeding, you are going to see flasks that are very well grown out with lots of fuzzy roots in addition to flask roots, plus a significant presence of protocorm masses that may or may not have sprouted.

Protocorm masses present something of a difficulty when deflasking because they often tend to be “sticky” just like fuzzy roots- and even if you do not try to save them (and trying to save them is worthwhile), they can make separating out seedlings messy.

Same starting point here as with the other flasks- I used the florist wire tool to remove as much excess agar as possible. But here you have to go a bit slower because the roots are quite extensive and so there are few areas where large chunks of agar are unoccupied.

Once that process is done, before attempting to break apart the clump into two sections- I think it is worthwhile to gently separate any plants that are growing at the perimeter of the clump and have a large number of roots,

Once plants with large roots around the perimeter are removed, it is easier to use the scraping tool to get at agar closer to the center of the clump and eventually break it apart in the middle,

With rothschildianum- and other flasks with significant fuzzy root growth- you will very frequently encounter situations where small groupings of plants are clinging together. As noted with the adductum example posted above, best to go with it and keep the group intact for now,

In the same vein- here is a phenomenon you will commonly encounter in many Paph flasks- where two individual plants are either somewhat attached at the base- or along a root- again all due to the presence of fuzzy roots. It is very tempting to break them apart- it seems so simple, just two plants and just one root connection adhering them. Please resist the urge. I have been there and done that- and most of the time you will do great harm. They can be easily separated later when each plant has a number of fuzzy roots such that the risk of losing part of one will not have much impact.

And one more thing you will commonly encounter- here a number of sprouted protocorms are quite firmly attached to a well rooted seedling. Best to leave them intact. Unrooted protocorms are high risk out of flask- but that nice big seedling is good to go. The former have a better chance going back into flask or into a covered pot (more on that in Chronicles IV), but the latter is a sure thing- and you risk damaging it if you try to pull off its little friends,

Final shot- here is a clump of sprouted, but unrooted protocorms to give you a really good look at them. I will cover handling these in Chronicles IV and I hope I have found a good way to give them a chance at surviving out of flask. I have failed in the past, but you can easily have 20-30 plants at this stage in a roth flask (and sanderianum too to a lesser extent), so I hope my new approach will offer some success in the long term.

This concludes Chronicle II. I expect this will eventually prove to have been the longest and most detailed Chronicle. That is because this is where the greatest risk exists, and where attention to detail pays off most. I hope it has not been daunting- it is intended to demystify and show you some real life images of what I had to learn on my own for nearly 20 years. In many ways, this is the most fun part of the process- so please do not let the level of detail scare you away from giving this a try.
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Thanks everyone. And paphioboy- best of luck when you do make your first attempt! It is a very fun process.

One thing I should have noted more carefully when starting this process- these and prior Chronicles have focused in part or in whole on handling species that are still relatively new to cultivation from the standpoint of making and raising sib crosses. So I am tackling some of the trickier plants. If you start off with a flask of callosum, or perhaps a brachy- that can be a good starting point without some of the risks of handling newer species.

And again, when I say "newer" species, I mean newer in the sense of being in the first few generations of being sibbed or selfed in captivity.

Sanderianum, for example, has been known for well over a century. But in the 1980s, the plants available for sale were generally jungle collected, or divisions of jungle collected plants. The first widely available sanderianum sib cross that came to market in the late 80s ended up being PEOY due to an honest, but costly, mistake. It really was not until the early 2000s that sanderianum became widely, and reliably available as a cultivated seedling with some generational distance from jungle plants- and thus easier to grow.

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