You may have had your orchid a long time now, and never seen it make any seeds. So how do orchids reproduce? Do they have seeds at all, or only reproduce by making keikis? And if orchids do produce seeds, where are they?
Do orchid flowers have seeds? They do. The seeds grow in a small pod that develops from a pollinated flower. The flower dries up and the seed pod matures. It can take several months before the seeds inside are ready to become tiny orchids. Most growers grow keikis rather than growing orchids from seeds, as this is easier, but creating hybrid orchids is impossible without growing them from seed.
The guide below is a short one. It addresses a few key questions, like do orchids have seeds, where those seeds are found, and why most indoor orchids never produce seeds at all.
Do Orchids Have Seeds?
Orchids have seeds like other plants do. But these seeds aren’t exactly the same as those of other plants.
The first difference between an orchid’s seeds and those of other plants is their size. They’re tiny. They aren’t like big sunflower seeds, the kind you can eat; they’re the size of tiny specks of dust. The reason they’re so small is that they contain just a fraction of the nutritional value that other seeds do. Seeds typically contain lots of fat and protein, which serves as a dense food source for a growing plant. This nutrient store allows the plant to develop its roots and leaves to the point where it can sustain itself. But an orchid’s seeds are much smaller, as it relies on a special fungus that it finds in the wild to provide it with food and water.
Another difference is that these seeds take a long, long time to grow. ‘Normal’ seeds can sprout quickly, because the plant draws on the fat and protein in brought with it. But because orchids don’t do that, they take years to reach maturity. That even applies when they’re grown by people.
How Big Are an Orchid’s Seeds?
If you’ve never seen how small an orchid’s seeds are, then you might think we’re exaggerating when we say they’re as tiny as specks of dust. Here’s a quote from the Kew website describing them in detail:
To give an impression of the dimensions involved: a single capsule of the tropical American orchid Cycnoches chlorochilon produces almost four million seeds, and one gram of seeds of the southeast Asian species Aerides odorata contains 3.4 million seeds. At around 0.2 mm in length, Aerides odorata has the smallest seeds I have ever come across at Kew’s Millennium Seed Bank. According to the literature [Arditti, J. & Abdul Karim Abdul Ghani (2000) Numerical and physical properties of orchid seeds and their biological implications (Tansley Review No. 110). New Phytologist 145: 367-421], there are orchids with even smaller seeds. Those of the New Caledonian species Anoectochilus imitans are said to be the smallest of all, measuring just 0.05 mm in length. At a ‘gigantic’ 6 mm, the seeds of the lopsided star orchid (Epidendrum secundum) are allegedly the longest of any orchid.
The biggest of these seeds at 6mm equates to about a quarter of an inch. 0.2mm is, apparently, 0.0078740157 inches. That’s less than a hundredth of an inch, so… Pretty small.
The smaller the seed, the better it blows on the wind, which is what orchids need. Common orchid species like cattleya and phalaenopsis like to grow on trees, without any soil around their roots. The seed that becomes the plant has to find a crack in a tree’s bark where it can make use of the water and nutrients stored by fungi to grow. If the seeds were heavy, they would drop to the ground and not be able to grow.
Where Are an Orchid’s Seeds?
So, now that you know all that, where do an orchid’s seeds actually come from? You can keep orchids your whole life and never see them. So, where are they, and how do they develop?
Where Are My Orchid’s Flower Seeds?
An orchid’s seeds develop from its flower. More specifically, they grow in a seed pod, the look of which can vary.
Some orchid seed pods look like vanilla beans. A Phalaenopsis seed pod, for example, is green and long; it has ridges running along it from the bottom to the top, with the dried, shrivelled flower at the end of it. It’s instantly recognizable as something that isn’t a regular flower, isn’t a keiki, and isn’t a new flower spike. It grows to about the length and width of a small cigar, or a finger. It’s thin at the base and wider at the end, where the flower is. It has a flared end where the seed pod meets the flower.
Other orchid seed pods are rounded and bulbous, but still have ridges running along them. Cattleya seed pods are especially interesting to look at. They are squat and have what you might call flanges sticking up in very distinct ridges, for an overall rounded appearance, but without a solid fleshy body. They’re quite difficult to describe,but instantly recognizable when you see them.
All orchid species produce seed pods, without exception. Orchids are part of a very large group of plants called the Angiosperms. This group is, in plain English, the grouping of the flowering plants—and all flowering plants produce seeds.
Why Doesn’t My Orchid Have Seeds?
Unless you’re familiar with plant biology, this might not be something you’ve read about before. Plants only produce seeds and fruit when their flowers have been pollinated; they don’t do so anyway if they haven’t. As such, if your orchids flowers haven’t been pollinated, they won’t grow seeds.
The whole process starts when pollen from one flower reaches another flower. This can be done by an insect, like a bee. In the case of orchid growing, this is normally done manually by a person. The flower will then wither up and die, but not before the seed pod begins to form. It can take many months to fully mature, at which point it will burst open, and the microscopic seeds inside will be gathered and distributed by the wind. Or, at least, that’s the case for wild orchids.
It’s very difficult for an indoor orchid to be pollinated. That’s because there are no pollinators that can easily reach the plant. Plus, it’s exceptionally unlikely that a pollinator will bring pollen from your neighbor’s orchid—so the only option is if you have several orchids, and one is pollinated with pollen from another. Most growers never see their orchids producing seed pods, and rely instead on growing keikis, which is far easier and less time consuming.
How Do You Get Seeds from an Orchid?
If you want to grow orchids from seed, it’s possible, but it’s very difficult to do so. You need lots of specialist equipment, lots of patience, and rigorous hygiene standards (as bacteria from non-sterilized equipment can kill the seeds before they grow).
Growing orchids from seeds is known as ‘flasking’. That’s because you grow them in special tiny flasks. Here’s how it works. You need to:
- Rigorously clean your equipment using soap and water followed by an open flame, or by using an autoclave
- Pollinate the orchid flower manually using a toothpick or similar tool
- Harvest the seed pod either when it’s 2/3rds mature (green seeds) or fully mature (dry seeds)
- Prepare flasking mixture, which is a sugary powder you add water to
- Quickly add seeds into the mixture
It then takes years and years for the orchid to grow to reach maturity. If you made any mistakes when cleaning your equipment, then either a fungal or bacterial growth could kill the seeds.
Most scientists will harvest the seed pod when it’s green, but most home growers harvest when it’s old, dried and fully mature. Harvesting the pod when it’s green is good because the pod won’t have opened, so it will be sterile inside, all the better for flasking; mature pods split open, which is the point, as the seeds can then disperse. But older dried pods have more fully developed seeds.
If you want to get a new orchid, I would recommend growing a keiki rather than growing an orchid in a flask. It’s so, so much easier to grow keikis than do all of this! All you need to do is take keiki paste—a special waxy substance with plant hormones in it—and rub it on one of the nodes of an orchid’s flower spike. A few months later, without you having to do a thing, you’ll have a new baby orchid.