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Birth of the Blues

With a friend’s gift to H. P. Norton – and maybe the help of a centuries-old ghost – the Phal. violacea world changed forever By Katherine Norton

MONCKS CORNER, SC. - During a warm summer month in the early 1980s Michael Ooi toured the Eastern United States. Michael is from Malaysia and well known to most orchid fanciers. He had started his tour with a stop at the American Orchid Society Headquarters in Cambridge, Mass., and was working his way to Florida when he stopped by St. George, S. C., to visit Jemmco Orchids.

Michael Osborne, a partner of Jemmco, was an old friend of Ooi’s who had visited the Ooi orchid range in Buttersworth, Malaysia frequently. The two young men had become fast friends.

Ooi had determined that the late Dr. Gavino Roto of Crestwood Orchids in Signal, Tenn., was a must on his list of interesting orchid growers who warranted a visit. The two young Michaels invited H. P. Norton, who had begun growing orchids only three years previously, to go on the trip. Little did Osborne, Ooi and H.P. realize as they set out on the trip that it would change the Phal. violacea world forever.

A special gift
The three drove from St. George to Atlanta and up to Chattanooga where they were fortunate enough to visit with Dr. Roto. Much would happen before they set out across the Smoky Mountains to Asheville, N.C. and back to Charleston.

Phalaenopsis hybridizing was the main conversation for the four-day trip. Osborne had a multifaceted hybridizing program since Jemmco grew everything from Cattleyas for the cut flower market to the finest Phalaenopsis and Paphiopedilum compots being offered for sale at that time. Ooi lived in the heart of the region that is home to many phalaenopsis species, therefore his knowledge of species was unparalleled.

During the trip H.P. explained that his goal was to breed large yellow phalaenopsis that flowered like standard white phalaelnopsis rather than the typical yellow novelties of the time, which had small yellow flowers with spots and bars and bloomed on short inflorescences. He claimed to have some like that in flasks - which was the wake up call for Ooi.

Half-joking, half-serious, Ooi kept asking H.P., “What are you going to give me to remember you by?” At the end of the week when Michael was departing, H. P. handed him a little four-ounce germination flask literally full of protocorms of one of his first yellow crosses.

About a month later, H. P. received a package from Malaysia containing 25 Phal. violacea (Borneo), which are now Phal. bellina, and 25 Phal. violacea (Malayan). It was impossible at that time to envision what this gift would mean to the world of Phal. violacea.

After flowering a majority of the Phal. violacea plants, the two best clones were chosen in 1982 to establish a long series of inbreeding. The best progeny were selected from each subsequent cross and used as the parents for the next grex. After more than eight successive crosses, with each subsequent cross producing darker magenta flowers than the previous grex, a startling breakthrough came in a cross made in 1996.

They couldn’t believe their eyes
Flasks of 50 plants each of the now-famous N9670 Phal. violacea (‘#1’ and ‘Harvey’) were offered for sale in the Orchidview catalog for $75 and many flasks were taken to the IPA Symposium in Coral Gables, Florida. Susan and Todd of Miller’s Tropicals of Miami bought one of the flasks. Later he told the Nortons that he thought at the time he should not spend that much on a violacea flask.

Miller’s money was well spent, however, as he flowered the first Phal. violacea var. ‘Indigo’ from the flask. Miller said he could not believe his eyes when he saw the flower. He sent a digital photo of the flower to the Nortons, who had the same reaction. Subsequently, the Miller’s flowered three ‘Indigos’ from the flask.

The cross has produced 25 blue Phal. violaceas thus far. There are at least 100 unbloomed seedlings from that 1996 cross remaining. When the Millers called with the good ‘blue news’ Norton went to his lab and replated every green dot in the only remaining mother flask.

Ken Avant in Kingston Springs, Tenn. bought a flask at a later IPA Symposium and flowered his first ‘Indigo’ in 2001. Being the gracious gentleman that he is, he sent pollen from ‘Ken’s #2’ to Orchidview because the Nortons still had flowered only standard magenta Phal. violaceas. The pollen was used to make N0154 Phal. violacea ‘Royalty’ x ‘Ken’s Blue’.

The first flower from the N0154 cross surely has that ‘WOW’ factor. Cameras refuse to –or, maybe, just cannot - capture the Royal Purple color of the flowers. There is such fully saturated deep color that the green tips usually seen on the petals and sepals are not obvious. Even after mentioning all these attributes, we are saving the best for last - the iridescence. It shows so beautifully in the greenhouse light and is even more sparkling when taken outdoors into filtered sunlight.

Finally in Sept 2001 Phal. violacea ‘Gulfstream Blue’, the first ‘Indigo’ for Orchidview, opened on Friday, one day before monthly American Orchid Society judging in Atlanta. It was taken there simply to show it to the judges. They could not ignore it and gave the plant with one little blossom a JC/AOS. Since that time, the Nortons have flowered eighteen ‘Indigo’ Phal. violaceas .

As usual, the one little flower was pollinated and N0230 Phal. violacea ‘Gulfstream Blue’ x self was made. Mrs. Senchal Hatton, who bought the first little plant offered for sale from the cross, has now flowered her plant and, believe it or not, her’s is ‘Indigo’!

In 2004 the Nortons packed three ‘Indigos’ and headed to Indianapolis to display them at the IPA Symposium. The most outstanding, ‘Rachel’s Blue Eyes’, opened on Friday just in time for AOS judging and received the IPA Symposium Best Phalaenopsis trophy.

On July 4, 2005, ‘Blue Blood’ opened. The Nortons were disappointed because they thought the flower would be past its prime on the 15th, opening day for the 11th IPA Symposium in Philadelphia. Not only was it not fading, but another ‘Indigo’, Phal. violacea ‘Blue Chip’ opened on the drive to Philadelphia, just as ‘Rachel’s Blue Eyes’ had the year before on the way to Indianapolis. Phal. violacea ‘Blue Chip’ was also awarded the IPA Symposium Best Phalaenopsis trophy.

The birth of the blues
Hurricane Gaston came roaring ashore at Cape Romain Federal Wildlife Refuge east of Orchidview on August 29, 2004. It formed off the coast as a tropical depression and came onshore on Sunday morning as a hurricane. Trees were down and electrical power was off for eighteen hours.

When the Nortons finally were able to make their way to the greenhouse and start the generator they peeped in to see how the plants were faring. Phal. violacea ‘Gaston Bleu’ had just begun opening enough to show the deepest ‘Indigo’ color yet seen in this line of breeding. A professional photographer was called to record the beauty of the flower and the first true color pictures of the ‘Indigo’ violaceas were made. Until then it had proved difficult to capture the true indigo color, but Paul Alford was up to the task.

Since the Nortons have offered for sale all crosses made with progeny from Michael Ooi’s gift, Phal. lovers worldwide have the opportunity to flower var. ‘Indigo’ Phal. violaceas in the near future. Michael certainly sent the Nortons something to remember him by. All this inbreeding has produced The Birth of the Blues.

And now … ‘the rest of the story’

But just maybe there is a ‘Rest of the Story’ as radio commentator Paul Harvey says.
Could all of this just accidentally happen from one seed pod? Could a line of truly ‘Indigo’- colored Phal. violacea all of a sudden come on the scene? Or, was this the culmination of an adventure that started nearly three hundred years ago?

In 1722 Eliza Lucas was born to a British Military Officer who was serving in Charleston, S.C., and his wife. When Eliza was but 16, her Mother had passed away, her Father was transferred to the Caribbean, and she was left in charge of the family plantation on the Cooper River.

The Cooper River is a typical Low Country river in that it takes many turns as it lazily makes way to the ocean, or, in this case, Charleston harbor. In a straight line the distance from Orchidview to the harbor is 20 miles. Traveling by boat the distance is more than 40 miles.

In Eliza’s day, in each of the turns as the river wound back and forth, dikes were put in the shallow side of the river to make rice fields. There were floodgates and the water entering or leaving the rice field was controlled by the plantation owner. Few of the old floodgates are in operation now and Carolina Gold rice is only a gourmet dish and not a cash crop. It is truly delicious and should be tried by all who truly appreciate excellent food!

While rice was the main crop in Colonial Days, Eliza was aware of the growing textile industry and began cultivating and creating improved strains of the indigo plant from which a blue dye can be obtained. Within two years, her success was so great that she was exporting 130,000 pounds of indigo per year and indigo had become second only to rice as a cash crop.

As many of you know, Orchidview is located on the bank of the Cooper River - from which the water is taken to cultivate the Norton’s crop. Could it be that the old Mepkin Plantation rice field, which is straight across the Cooper River from Orchidview, is in reality one of Eliza’s indigo fields??????

H.P. and Katherine Norton are the owners-operators of Orchidview and are founding members of the IPA.
1018 Live Oak Avenue
Moncks Corner, S.C. 29461