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Dyeing to be colourful

Orchids used to be expensive plants, bought and nurtured only by collectors. Now, thanks to the wonders of micro-propagation techniques, they are widely available and come in a wide range of shapes, sizes and colours. However, not all of the colours are what they seem.

Whether this bothers you or not depends on how you view the plants. If you are the person who enjoys the plant while it flowers, then throws it away rather than try to coax another flower stem up, then it will have little effect on you. If, like me, you regard orchids as a challenge and revel in the sight of a new flower stem starting to grow, then you might be interested.

Flower colours like the ones in the photo are not natural, they are far too intense to have happened on their own. They are also colours that don't usually occur in nature: such vivid blues and greens are rare. These are testament to the art of the growers (usually in The Netherlands) who work to manipulate nature using dyes. Orchids are by no means the only species they do this to, but they are the ones where it has the most impact, is least obvious and, in that respect, is the most deceptive.

The orchids in the picture are actually white-flowered, because there is less pigment to try to change. Dye is injected into the stem low down near the base so it is taken up into the buds as they open. If you have one, you will notice that the later the buds open, the paler the colour will be as the dye runs out. If you are ever unsure about a colour, look closely near the base of the flower stem and you should be able to see the injection site as a small hole with discolouration around it.

The main thing to note is that this strong colour only happens once. Subsequent flowers will all be pure white or perhaps white and pink, if a multi-coloured effect was achieved first time around. Yes, this is technically a deception when you buy the plant, unless it is clearly labelled as dyed, but the plant itself is still a good orchid to grow on at home. A blue one we were given several years ago is now a large, healthy, pure white-flowered plant.

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This story was published on: 20/10/2018

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