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f 10 Orchids

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  • HUNTINGTON FRONTIERS 11

    On a warm October morning Lance Birk and Brandon Tam are busy pollinating orchids in a humidHuntington greenhouse filled with 6,000 specimens of eye-popping color and beauty. Bearinga toothpick, the 17-year-old Tam gingerly extracts pollenfar smaller than a grain of ricefrom thecolumn of one Paphiopedilum rothschildianum and carefully inserts it into that of another. The veteranorchid enthusiast Birk instructs Tam on how best to spread the sticky pollen under the plants stigmatic plate.

    Were making a sibling cross between these two randomly selected plants of the same species, explainsBirk. With the seeds produced, well grow about 50 plants. Then, by comparing the offspring against oneanother, they can study the genetic diversity and variations of that particular species to understand its full andnatural expression.

    Thanks to the single-minded passion of a former stockbroker from Santa Barbara who spent decades amassingone of the worlds great orchid collections, The Huntington is on course to becoming an important center fororchid conservation. The late S. Robert Weltz, whose daughters donated his entire orchid collection to TheHuntington after he died last spring, is also the inadvertent creator of an unlikely partnership; it pairs an orchidexpert who has traveled the world searching for rare species with a bright and focused teenager who came toThe Huntington as a volunteer and stayed as an intern.

    Birks interest in orchids dates back to 1962, when he began trekking through Mexico, Indonesia, China,and the Philippines to uncover elusive species. He developed a specialty in paphiopedilums (commonly knownas lady slipper orchids). At his home in Santa Barbara he built his own orchid collection, which he eventually

    ForEVEROrchids

    A remarkable gift ensures the future of orchids atThe Huntington and beyond

    by Traude Gomez Rhine

  • While Birk andTam come fromdifferent worlds,they are bound

    lost to a previously unknown disease,and wrote several books about orchids,including one about his tales of adven-tures in the wild. When his long-timefriend Bob Weltz began consideringthe ultimate prospects of his belovedcollection, Birk suggested he leave it toThe Huntington, believing it wouldbe a marriage of the best collection tothe place most capable of caring for it,

    and knowing that if the collection weresold off piece by piece to private col-lectors, its research potential would belost forever. Now that its in San Marino,Birk travels down from Santa Barbarathree times a week, on volunteer time,to care for the collection, workingalongside Tam.

    Tam began volunteering in TheHuntingtons high school programwhen he was 14 in hopes of working inthe gardens. At 16, the same year thathe opted to leave high school earlyand begin college, he was recruited byJim Folsom, the Telleen/JorgensenDirector of the Botanical Gardens, tointern in the botanical division. WhenFolsom discovered the extent of Tamshorticultural interest, his focus anddesire to learn, as well as his passionfor orchids, he asked him to help withthe existing collection.

    While Birk and Tam come fromdifferent worlds, they are bound by thatinexplicable orchid fever, the mysteriousfascination that even they themselvescant quite fully articulate. Both, though,remember the precise orchid that sentthem over the edge.

    For Birk, it was a Lalia anceps that hisbest friends father had planted on atree. I was 24, and they dazzled me.Orchids were something none of myfriends knew anything about, and thatintrigued me.

    For Tam, it was a cymbidium hespotted in his grandmothers garden.One day when I was eight, I cameacross this plant that I thought was sougly, and I completely ignored it, hesays. When it bloomed, I realized it

    was an orchid. The flower lasted abouttwo months, and I was fascinated.

    Tam already had one foot firmlyplanted in horticulture, gardening reg-ularly with his grandmother. She cameover from Hong Kong and owned aliquor store, Tam says. She was alwaysbusy, but she made it a priority to gar-den with me every Sunday after church.She was the one who introduced me tothe world of orchids.

    As Tam continues to pollinate, Birk,craggy and suntanned, assesses a tableof phalaenopsis orchids and shouts outorders. This plant is too dryfeel theleaves.We need to water this a coupletimes a week.

    Tam nods, calmly absorbing Birksevery word, which range from intricatedescriptions of plant anatomy to talesof falling off a cliff in the Philippinesand plunging into a river while tryingto reach an orchid. The endless hoursof work the two share are filled witheasy banter as Birk divulges his vastknowledge.

    This boy is a sponge, laughs Birk.Everything I teach him he learns.Days are also spent repotting plants,

    documenting and cataloging the col-lection, and setting up a lab space insidethe Botanical Center where they canconduct further research. The two workin tandem with Dylan Hannon, TheHuntingtons curator of conservatoryand tropical collections and custodianof the preexisting collection of orchidshere. While Hannon specializes in thepure species, Tam and Birk are lendinga hand to sorting through the hybridsin the Weltz collection.

    While Birk and Tam come from different worlds, they are bound by that inexplicable orchid fever.

  • HUNTINGTON FRONTIERS 13

    Perhaps The Huntingtonsorchid collection will forev-er be referred to as BeforeWeltz and After Weltz.Boasting beautiful and rare naturalspecies as well as rare and unusualhybrids, the Weltz collection elicits suchsuperlatives as worlds best and oneof a kind. A great many of his plantshave won top awards.

    Bob would get there first, and hepaid the most and sought out thebest, says Birk. His desire was foraward-quality hybrids. Indeed, Weltzspent countless hours in his greenhousecreating strange and even bizarrehybrids. His cross of a Paphiopedilumrothschildianum with a Paphiopedilumarmeniacum produced the difficult-to-obtain Paphiopedilum dollgoldi LaurieSusan Weltz, earning him a perfect100-point First Class Certificate fromthe American Orchid Society. He evenset up his office in his greenhouse,bringing in his Bloomberg machine, acomputer system that helps to analyzethe financial markets, so hed never haveto leave his plants. By all accounts, hewas completely impassioned, driven by

    the desire to produce hybrids, a processthat can require cross-pollinating thou-sands of plants to eventually create onesignificant specimen.

    Before Weltz, The Huntingtonsorchid holdings were scattered, a smat-tering of some nice species, says Folsom,explaining that they consisted of about2,000 species and hybrids. We hadbreadth but not depth, some great plantsbut nothing noteworthy. The Weltzcollection is composed of spectacularspecies. It concentrates on slipper orchidsand unusual hybrids, so overnight wehave a notable, core collection.

    What The Huntington didnt havein its collection, it made up for by cul-tivating an orchid culture that wouldsupport receiving this gift and aninterest in orchids that stretched allthe way back to Arabella Huntington,who loved and collected them. Infact, the Huntingtons San Marinoestate was the first place in SouthernCalifornia where cymbidiums weregrown outside as landscape plants. Butafter Henry Huntington died in 1927and following the stock market crashtwo years later, personnel managing

    the property needed to cut expenses.The gardens were trimmed back andthe orchid collection sold.

    But orchids found their way backin a variety of ways. They came throughthe knowledge of Folsom, who focusedon orchid-related field taxonomy andevolutionary biology as a graduatestudent in botany, and through thelong association with Orchid Digestmagazine. The publication maintainsits editorial offices in the BotanicalCenter, and Folsom is a member of itspublication committee. In 2002, TheHuntington received an endowmentfrom the late orchid enthusiast DavidNax that provides ongoing funds tosupport the orchid collection by per-petuating their cultivation, display,interpretation, and study here. Morerecently, Geneva and Charles Thorntonmade a promised gift of their SanMarino home and garden, whichincludes a conservatory that will soonhouse 2,000 specimens from TheHuntingtons orchid collection. Andorchids also arrive every fall withgreat fanfare for the annual SouthlandOrchid Show, hosted by The Huntington

    Bob Weltz in October 2009 with one of his great prize winners, the Paphiopedilum dollgoldi Laurie Susan Weltz. Photo by Heidi Kirkpatrick. Page 11: Brandon Tamand Lance Birk pollinate a specimen of Paphiopedilum rothschildianum, one of 6,000 plants given to The Huntington by the Weltz family. The collection includes thePaph. Spicerianum okika (opposite top); Paph. Robert Weltz (opposite bottom); and Paph. Lynleigh Koopowitz Catherine Beurnier (page 14). Photos by Lisa Blackburn.

  • in the Botanical Center and in The RoseHills Foundation Conservatory forBotanical Science.

    For these reasons, a cadre of orchidexperts regularly congregate at TheHuntington: Harold Koopowitz andErnest Hetherington, who both serveon the board of Orchid Digest, are oftenfound in the gardens or Botanical Cen-ter, just as scholars are found in theLibrary. Koopowitz is professor emeri-tus of ecology at the University ofCalifornia, Irvine, and a Paphiopedilumexpert who has traveled extensivelyto study orchids in the wild and toserve as an advocate for their conser-vation. He is the author of severalbooks on horticulture and conserva-tion. Folsom describes Hetheringtonas a guiding light for The Huntingtonfor 20 years. Hes one of the greatorchid legends of the world, not just

    of Southern California, says Folsom.He ran Stewart Orchids for decadesand has written extensively. He nur-tured Orchid Digest and nurtured theconne

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