Blue Hawaii

The quest for the ultimate orchid is mounted

March, 2004

Orchids already come in a variety of colors, but, so far, no one has been able to attain the holy grail of orchid-culture – a blue orchid. This could change, soon. Hawaii researchers, led by Dr. Adelheid Kuehnle at the University of Hawaii’s Department of Tropical Plant and Soil Sciences, are working on breeding the world’s first blue orchid.

Recognized as one of the world’s leading flower-breeding programs and one of the few that are publicly funded, Kuehnle’s applied research in horticulture focuses on orchids and anthuriums, the two most important flower commodities in the state. Of Hawaii’s record $92 million flower and nursery products industry in 2002, orchids posted a farm value of $22.4 million and anthuriums $5.5 million. Dendrobiums alone, Kuehnle’s orchid specialty, tallied $11.4 million.

“We are always looking for new avenues to explore and work closely with growers and producers to keep the industry one step ahead of the competition,” says Kuehnle. All of her department’s work is industry-driven, and she takes pride that local industry growers and government officials continue to set genetics breeding as the top research priority for funding. She credits Hawaii’s strong international reputation for high-quality flowering plants to its unique partnership between cutting-edge researchers and risk-taking growers.

Kuehnle has built on the work of her predecessor, UH emeritus professor Haruyuki Kamemoto, who amassed, in 40 years of collecting and breeding native plants, both a stockpile and knowledge of orchids and anthuriums far exceeding what a commercial grower could ever maintain. As a result, the University of Hawaii has developed 90 percent of the dendrobium orchids and 70 percent of the anthuriums estimated in production in Hawaii fields. The department’s pioneering work on molecular processes that influence flower color and fragrance – two key marketing attractions – has helped put Hawaii’s tropical flower industry in the forefront of the global floral marketplace.

Kamemoto set the tone for the department’s work when he revolutionized the orchid industry in the early 1970s, by developing dendrobium propagation by seeds to supplant the labor-intensive, tissue-culture method. Seed propagation helped local growers stay competitive in the world market by reducing production costs and eliminating viruses passed by tissue cultures.

“Hawaii has the best orchids in the world,” says Kuehnle matter-of-factly. “And it’s because of the quality of our flowers, good water and knowledgeable growers.” She is especially excited about the recent surge in the popularity of orchids, which saw a healthy 10 percent increase in sales in 2002 over 2001. Once confined to a backyard hobby of a few enthusiasts, this exotic flower now features hardier breeds and new colors and shapes that are readily available in local garden shops and have gained widespread appeal in homes, offices and landscaping.

Kuehnle’s research has also recently gained attention for the world’s first commercial scented anthurium. Named by Kuehnle after the first grandchild of Emperor Akihito of Japan, the anthurium “Princess Aiko” is a dainty, sweet-scented, high-yield pink anthurium that is being released to the local industry this month. In two or three years, consumers should expect to see this new, multipurpose breed used for cut flowers, potted plants or landscaping.

The “Princess Aiko” is an example of the conventional breeding methods also used by UH researchers to develop continuous-blooming dendrobiums, whose blooms last for three years, as well as the commercially successful, bright red anthurium “Tropic Fire,” which produces royalties for the department through a licensing agreement with an international plant propagator.

The blue orchid is an example of biotechnological approaches used by researchers to develop genetically modified flowers, with characteristics that cannot be achieved through conventional breeding methods. A potted-orchid survey revealed growers’ interest in new, colored orchids for export, says Kuehnle, and prompted her current research in the blue orchid. If the industry responds to these new colored breeds, she may explore orange and red varieties in the future. Then, the rainbow of orchids will be complete.

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