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Blooming crazy for orchids

Monday, September 2, 2013
One of Lutchman’s cattleya hybrid orchids Summer Spots. PHOTOS: NICOLE DRAYTON

For those among us who aren’t exactly gardening enthusiasts, it may be a surprise to hear that orchids are one of the largest plant families in the world, with somewhere between 20,000 and 30,000 documented species worldwide.


Another interesting fact is that in the last 20 years, local orchid expert Curtis Lutchman has added around 500 new hybrid orchids to the mix through his private cross-breeding programme. In May of this year, the 47-year-old award-winning horticulturalist participated in the Redland International Orchid Festival in Miami, where he won awards from the American Orchid Society (AOS) for best phalaenopsis orchid and best ascocenda orchid.


But this is nothing new for Lutchman, whose collection of awards is ever-blooming. It seems the only thing he has more of than trophies, is flowers. When the T&T Guardian visited his home on Don Miguel Extension Road in San Juan earlier this month, his garden was swamped with exotic-looking orchids of all colours and shapes. 


Lutchman’s passion for plants started over 20 years ago as a hobby, when he began collecting roses and hybrid gerberas in his garden. When he discovered the complexity and unique beauty of the orchid, he uprooted everything else and focused solely on that.


“Orchids are very exotic,” he said. “They take some time to grow. Some take like five to eight years to flower, but once they do, they give you that quality and that sense of satisfaction, as compared to a rose. Everybody has a rose, gerbera or croton in their garden.”


Lutchman said orchids can easily be introduced into anyone’s garden but it was a matter of selecting a species that is already adapted to that particular environment. While orchids are largely adaptable, it is important to consider factors like temperature, humidity, availability of light and moisture to ensure the specific needs of the plant are met. He said, for example, that someone whose garden gets a lot of direct sunlight could grow sun vandas, dendrobiums or certain types of oncidiums.


The problem in T&T, he said, is that very few gardeners know how to properly select a plant type based on environmental compatibility, and this sort of advice is not offered by the T&T Horticultural Society (TTHS) or any other expert body. He said in T&T, there are some expert growers who prefer not to share what they know about orchids—a practice that he strongly admonishes. He added that there are many instances of people selling orchids that they know cannot flourish in a tropical climate.


“I’m against that totally,” he said. “I think if you can teach a person how to grow orchids properly, they will buy more and they will invest more. On the other hand, if you just sell them something because you want make a quick buck and you are fully aware that the plant is going to die, what you are doing is discouraging gardeners.”


Lutchman also owns a wedding decor company called Fantasy Weddings and Exotic Orchids and since 1989, he has carried out extensive cross-breeding operations in his at-home lab. 


He explained that the process involves taking the pollen from one orchid and crossing it onto the stigmatic surface of another. This hybridisation calls for meticulous documentation of details such as the date of pollination, the day seeds were flasked, the date the plant first flowered and the number of flowers on each stem. 


While he could not give a specific timeline for one of these hybridising operations, he said cattleyas could take around five years from seed to flowering, as compared to androbiums, which take three to four years and vandasias, which take seven to eight years. He has also had success with some miniature orchids, with a height of four inches, that have managed to flower within two years. 


Lutchman has created close to 1,000 hybrid orchids in the last two decades, though he has only recorded the results for around 500 of them. Of those, he has registered around 50 with the Royal Horticultural Society in the UK, which is the leading horticultural organisation and repository for new orchid breeds. 


Among his standout hybrids is a beautiful burgundy orchid with yellow accents which he named after himself—the Dendrobiuim Curtis Lutchman. 


He said: “It normally flowers and holds up to ten to 12 flowers on a stem, and it smells really wonderful. The beauty about it is that it flowers probably about six times a year, as compared to other cattleyas which flower once or twice a year.”



Asked how much control he had over the physical characteristics of the hybrids, Lutchman said while it involves in-depth study of genetics, a lot of the process comes down to speculation.


“We can only speculate by knowing the genetic structure of the plant and the parentage of both plants and we know if we cross them the probability that we will get. If we plan to grow 200 plants, we can tell you, well, we will get 50 per cent of them being red, which we are breeding for, some will turn out brown, some purple. It all depends.”


Many of his hybrids have won awards internationally and he believes there is a need to recognise that when a hybrid is registered and awarded, it become exclusive to the country it was bred in. Lutchman has funded his breeding projects and competition fees on his own throughout his career but he admits that it becomes very expensive to register new hybrids. 


Generally a hybrid name consists of the two parent plants’ species names combined but in many instances the new plant carries a name given by the breeder who first developed it. 


Lutchman is a member of the T&T Orchid Society (TTOS) and is currently preparing for its autumn show, which is set to take place at Napa in Port-of-Spain during the first week in October. The following weekend, he will participate in the Miami International Orchid Show, where he will put on a display in cut flowers as well as a potted-plant display. Last year, he won several awards at the event, including the first-place trophy for the best international display. 


Preparation for a show begins two months in advance, but the flowers aren’t cut until the morning before he travels to the competition venue. 


Asked whether he sees a lot of interest in gardening in T&T, Lutchman said there was need to foster a love and proper understanding of what gardening entails.


“The first thing you need is the love of it,” he said. “A lot of people try to get into it for the money and they get frustrated after a while, because it is not a thing you just jump in and make a lot of money. Especially with orchids because they take a long time to grow.”


But he assures that he’s not a part of some sort of gardening elite. He is willing to offer advice to amateur gardeners looking to better their craft. On Saturdays, he hosts free consultations at his home where people can come in by appointment and ask any questions they may have on how to care for a particular plant. He also receives frequent calls from university-level students looking for information on genetics for their thesis.


Lutchman says young people with an interest in gardening are not a rare species and long gone is the stereotype of gardeners as elderly women in oversized hats and gloves pruning and pottering around their bushes. Lutchman’s 21-year-old son has been working with him in the garden since he was 12, and also travels with him to international flower shows. At these shows, he sees many other young people with a passion for buying and collecting plants. 


He admits, however, that many people still see gardening as something laborious and it is not seen as a viable career option.


“People don’t see it as a career option, because I don’t think we are encouraged to even go in that direction. For years I have been asking the agriculture ministry for land space to lease and from administration to administration it has been ignored.” 


Lutchman said while the University of the West Indies (UWI), St Augustine doesn’t offer a programme in horticulture, students are hesitant to take up study in related programmes like agriculture and forestry because they are not sure they will be able to secure jobs afterwards. And he says the lack of support for horticulture in T&T doesn’t stop there.


Within the last ten years that he has competed at the Miami International Orchid Show, he has been hired by several US-based companies to compete in the competition on their behalf.


“Over the last five years, we have started representing T&T at the show, but it is out of our own pockets. Every year we have been successful.”


“We have gained that recognition but we’ve achieved that on our own. The Government here doesn’t support or acknowledge that.”


This year, he has decided to compete in only six shows this year to cut down on his expenses.


Asked what he thinks is needed to liven up the local horticultural scene, Lutchman said not enough was being done by the TTHS or the TTOS to promote horticulture. He mentioned the Chelsea Flower Show in London, adding that there was need for similar local shows that would spawn greater interest in horticulture and gardening. He also lamented that the annual flower show held by the TTHS has wilted over the years, with fewer and fewer participants showing interest in the competition.


Years ago, the show which is held at the Queen’s Park Savannah, was a massive event that saw hundreds of flower displays at various stalls and drew a large number of patrons, who would fill the Grand Stand. The deterioration of the show, Lutchman says, is merely a reflection of the lack of support for horticulture locally.


“The people who used to do those big displays at the Savannah have died out, as with most things, and the young people aren’t doing it. There’s no encouragement or incentive. Challenge trophies have been pulled out, cash prizes have gone out the window and nothing is really happening. You gain nothing.”


Lutchman said he will continue to fertilise interest of amateur gardeners in and to represent T&T at flower shows around the world. T&T has a lot to offer in the world of horticulture, and he’s eager to see the interest in that field germinate.

For more information or to contact Lutchman, call 768-9577.



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In May this year, another local horticulturalist, Bernard Beckles, represented the TTHS at the Chelsea Flower Show, where the organisation copped its 16th gold medal. Beckles led the team to win in the Grenfell range category with its presentation titled Colour Me T&T. Beckles is also the owner of La Tropicale Flower Shop on Patna Street, St James, where he sat with the T&T Guardian for a brief interview. 


Although he’s been in the floral business for 32 years, Beckles started off as a qualified draftsman. 


His flower shop is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year. Last year, he was chosen as the show designer for the TTHS, charged with the responsibility of putting together any local or international displays on behalf of the organisation.


This year was Beckles’ first time at Chelsea, although he has represented T&T at shows in Barbados, Martinique, Grenada, Jamaica and Sweden. His award-winning Colour Me T&T piece centered around the work of celebrated local painter Michel Jean Cazabon and was aimed at showcasing the diverse nature of T&T society. Pan, African drums, cocoa pods, mangoes and of course, exotic flowers were all incorporated into the lavish display.


Asked his thoughts on the state of T&T’s floral industry, Beckles said it was not an industry that many people gravitate to because “they think there’s no money or career involved.”


Like Lutchman, he said, many amateur florists and horticulturalists do not feel encouraged to stay in the field because “old stalwarts in the industry feel threatened that they will take their spot and so they choose not to offer guidance or advice.”


He said it was important for established horticulturalists to make the industry accessible and attractive for young people coming up. Beckles also hosts sessions in which he offers advice to upcoming florists and floral designers. 


For more information, contact him at 628-0769.



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