Future of Cymbidiums: Notes from a Randall Robinson talk

At the 2016 NZ Orchid Expo and Conference Randall Robinson gave a talk looking at the future of Cymbidium breeding. Dr Robinson developed his life-long interest in Cymbidium species and primary hybrids during his time as the Eric Young Orchid Scholar at therandall-robinson Royal Horticultural Society in the early 1980s.

Since then he has maintained an extensive collection of species and primaries and selected historical hybrids, classic breeders and some specialist lines of breeding. He is a lecturer and researcher in ecology and botany at Victoria University in Melbourne where part of his work involves the study of genetics and inheritance in Cymbidium. He often writes online about Cymbidiums using the pseudonym Chuckie! – his tastes are so distinct that the term ‘Chuckish’ is used in some international Cymbidium forums, in reference to plants with interesting and unusual characteristics.

The notes from his talk are by Sandra Simpson (ie, the errors are hers!).

From 1889 to 1910 Cym. eburneum, a fragrant species, was the plant everyone grew and there were only a handful of Indian species available. The discovery of Cym. insigne in Vietnam in 1906 changed everything.


Cymbidium insigne by Matilda Smith for Curtis’ Botanical Magazine, 1910. Image: Wikipedia

People were intoxicated by it because it was so different – flowers well above the foliage (a first) – so it was crossed with just about everything. From 1911-16 29 of 29 hybrids were made with Cym. insigne and it is still found in about 93% of hybrids.

Cymbidium Alexanderi ‘Westonbirt’, which came to the fore in about 1922, has been dominant in breeding because of the cut-flower market – it keeps well and is white (perfect for brides) – but it wipes out the colour of breeding lines it’s introduced into and doesn’t have a great flower count.

By the 1950s and 1960s it was still making wishy-washy Cymbidium flower colours and unfortunately, 87% of Cymbidium hybrids still have ‘Westonbirt’ in them.

The 1950s and 1960s were the era of orchid clubs and judging standards which threw up a definition of perfection. In the past 20 years, however, people have been wanting more diversity.

Randall has made a survey of the top 100 breeders over the past century (he altered it to 101 during his talk):

  • 97 are men – 89 of European extraction, 6 Japanese and 2 Thai
  • 4 women – all of European extraction. Women have been responsible for some of the major breakthroughs in breeding.

Although the UK was previously the centre for Cymbidium breeding, breeding there is now in rapid decline and most breeders are in the US, Australia and New Zealand with Asia – particularly China, Taiwan and India – getting involved in a major way.

“The number of breeders is increasing vastly and most are amateurs, almost 200 of the 300 that are active. I encourage everyone to be in that group of amateur breeders – play around, experiment.”

Fragrance is becoming important in commercial hybrids – the perfume of the yellow Glory Daze x Sleeping Dawn travels 3m from the plant.

He said there is “a tsunami” coming for Cymbidiums and orchids in general with the amount of breeding being done in Asia. Hybrids being released there are “massively popular but they take us back to the beginning”.

“The ideal for flower shapes in China and Taiwan is quite different to the West’s big cup-shaped flowers. They prefer small flowers on small plants with only two to three flowers on a spike.


Cymbidium sinense ‘Hung Jin Yan Liao’. Leaf length is about 50cm. Image: Dragon Agro Products

“Asian-bred plants are going to dictate a lot of our tastes in the future so we need to respond. We’re in the driver’s seat because we have the potential breeding stock. We must respond to what people want instead of breeding for the show benches. Show judging standards will have to adapt.

“Our present-day tastes have been dictated by the California cut-flower trade of the 1950s, plus we’re dealing with a narrowing of the genetic base which is a real problem.”

Randall recently discovered, by chance, a new species of Cymbidium in an herbarium collection in China. He intends to return to China in May 2017 to try and find the plant in the wild.