Lab in Guest House Nurtures a World of Exotic Orchid Culture

Perched among the hills of Studio City, a tiny guest house is wreathed by violet ice plants that shimmer in the late afternoon sun. A mammoth stand of eucalyptuses frames a vista of clustered high-rises. But the tranquil atmosphere outside belies the complexity of the work going on within: This peaceful hillside cottage is the site of experiments in genetic engineering.

Inside, a man wearing a spotless lab coat and surgical gloves labors over a green concoction, mincing it into tiny granules. Reflected in his round spectacles are endless rows of Pyrex flasks basking under florescent lights--mini emerald worlds of roots and leaves at various stages of growth. Reams of typed formulas and petri dishes containing dried seed pods are stacked near heavy iron vats in another corner of the room.

"Now these are a hot item," the man says, reaching for a flask. " Paphiopedilum kolopakingii --a recent discovery. I have the first hybrids of it."

The man behind the spectacles is Bob Hull, the guest house is the headquarters of Sunswept Laboratories, and the "hot items" are rare and endangered orchids. The mail-order business receives orchid seed pods regularly from about 40 customers who need Hull's expertise in everything from asexual breeding to quadrupling chromosomes. In turn, Hull uses some of those seeds to grow new orchids that he sells to collectors and orchid societies.

Orchids, Hull said, are delicate plants that require special conditions for growing outside their native tropical habitats. Without operations such as Sunswept Laboratories, the exotic plants have no way of rapidly multiplying. Collectors and hobbyists who want more orchids can divide their plants after a year or two, but that is a slow, uncertain process, said Hull, who is assisted by one full-time and two part-time workers.

There are about a dozen orchids on the endangered species list put out by the U.S. government, but thousands more are considered rare. Rare and endangered plants, which can sell for as much as $6,000 a bulb, sell for about $10 each in the Sunswept catalogue. "We can spread a rare orchid around to the public very inexpensively," Hull said. "So the plants can go all over the world."

Customers who want to propagate their own plants mail a seed pod to the lab. They are then charged $15 per pod and eventually receive two flasks, each priced at an additional $10, which individually contain about 35 tiny plants, ready for potting. Hull will sometimes waive his fee for rare pods in exchange for a few seedlings that they will eventually produce.

"I'm willing to share seeds with Bob Hull because he keeps his cost within everyone's budget," said orchid curator Earl Ross, who tends 10,000 orchids at the Los Angeles State and County Arboretum in Arcadia. "We shouldn't limit rare orchids to just select individuals. If there's a demand, we need to supply the need."

Ross said orchid prices are often artificially inflated. "It's a business and people who are in it commercially would like to protect the prices."

Hull, a psychiatrist who treats psychotics at his Beverly Hills office, has combed the jungles of Ecuador, Colombia, Thailand, South Africa, Madagascar and Java for his stock of 1,000 species. He scours both public and private lands for plants and sometimes must pay a fee and obtain a collecting permit. He took his last trip five years ago and hopes to return to Panama in the near future.

"Each time I go back, there are less and less species," Hull said, adding that back yards in various countries often turn up the best finds since many rain forests are being destroyed.

Orchids, traditionally associated with Mother's Day and proms, are termed "exotic" for good reason. "The crazy thing about orchid seeds is that they contain no food," Hull said, adding that most seeds contain a "starter pack" of nutrients essential for primary growth.

When an orchid pod enters Hull's laboratory, it is first sterilized and then split open to reveal millions of seeds that are placed in a "mother flask" containing a blend of homogenized banana and charcoal. (In jungles, orchid seeds naturally fall upon fungi, which provide essential sugar and nitrogen, found in Hull's banana mixture.) Three weeks to two years later, the seeds germinate. Some species will not produce blooms for another seven years.

An inspector from the Los Angeles County Department of Agriculture examines each Sunswept Laboratory shipment before it leaves the premises. A certificate, assuring that there are no pests on board, is packed inside.

It was the absence of laboratories such as his own that prompted Hull to transform the guest house behind his home into a business 10 years ago. A degree in medicine from the University of Kansas and a few botany courses gave him the training needed for his work. "I started out with a few cymbidiums and then it spread from there.

"The lab has cost me a lot of money," added Hull, who spends weekends and most evenings working in the guest house. "It's a losing operation."

In addition to growing plants from seeds, Hull uses a propagation process called meristeming, which can produce thousands of genetically identical offspring from one shoot. A dissecting microscope is sometimes used to help pare down a shoot that is then put in liquid and tumbled in a flask for one month.

In Hull's laboratory, a dozen flasks clamped to a mechanical wheel turn slowly under an artificial light. "We're tumbling the orchid tissue for about a month to confuse it," Hull said. "Then it won't put out roots or shoots and will instead form calluses." After tumbling, the tissue can be dissected further, eventually producing thousands of plants.

Another propagation process alters chromosomes by treating seeds with a chemical. Although the offspring are slower-growing, the process can result in thicker leaves, greater color intensity, and wider sepals and petals.

In addition to the lab, there are two greenhouses on the premises that contain thousands of orchids. "It's a real jungle down here," Hull said, pushing his way past some Phalaenopsis orchids, commonly called moth orchids because of their lengthy blossom-covered stems, which appear to be smothered with hundreds of moths.

Gnarly root systems hang from the ceiling, some rambling from pot to pot, refusing to stay put. Lengthy strands of Spanish moss drip from corners and a thickly leaved vanilla orchid winds around a doorway and across the ceiling. Multicolored blooms, some with ruffle-edged petals speckled with fuzz, emit a heavy perfume. The lab is equipped with a complex system of thermostats, louvers and misters to keep the proper humidity and air circulating around the roots.

"Orchids are ugly plants, with nice flowers," Hull said as he caressed a Paphiopedilum , or slipper orchid.

Recalling the first orchid collecting trip he took in 1976 to the highlands of Panama, Hull said: "I accidentally found a plant that was only collected once before in history--at the turn of the century. It was a minor variety of a Lycaste orchid and very handsome. I traded it for a bunch of others, but should have kept the darn plant and propagated it."

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