Taiwan’s Moth Orchids —Their Past and Future


2016 / 6月

Chang Chiung-fang /photos courtesy of Chin Hung-hao /tr. by Jonathan Barnard

Biotech’s Clever Schemer earned its mettle 

With the rosy blush of this orchid’s petal

For Zhuangzi the blooms bear fruit as moth love

In dreamy states the sage and flowers soar above

—Wang Wei-yung, “Taiwanese Grandma”


At the 2016 Taiwan International Orchid Show, Wang Wei-yung, dean of the College of Liberal Arts at National ­Cheng Kung University, recited four lines of verse in honor of “Clever Schemers,” a new category of orchids developed by the university’s Orchid Research and Development Center. Taiwan’s orchid development prowess as well as its cultural elegance were on ample display to the show’s visitors, both foreign and local.  


As in years past, this year’s Taiwan International Orchid Show, the 12th, was held in Tai­nan’s ­Houbi. In its run of ten days in mid-March, the show garnered 220,000 visits from orchid enthusiasts of more than 26 nations and generated NT$9.72 billion in sales that should pan out over the next three to five years.

R&D support makes for a happy industry

The show revolved around the theme of “happiness.” Apart from featuring Taiwan’s 250 best-selling moth orchid (phalaenopsis) varieties and the 952 orchid plants entered into the show’s competitions, the “monkey face orchid” (Dracula simia) from Ecuador attracted a lot of attention and curiosity in the Year of the Monkey. NCKU’s “Clever Schemer” orchids, which debuted here, and National Taiwan University’s transgenic “Honey Snow,” the first successfully bred white oncidium, were big hits as well. 

Taiwan is one of the world’s major moth orchid exporters, with export sales exceeding US$130 million per year. That represents more than 70% of all Taiwan’s flower exports.

And Taiwan has invested more in researching moth orchids than in any other flowers. “Academic support is essential for the industry,” says Chen Hong-hwa, head of the Orchid R&D Center at NCKU. “As with the Netherlands’ tulips and Israel’s roses, whose commercial successes have been supported by research, Taiwan’s orchid industry is bolstered by a national-level research program.

There have been several recent research successes. Yeh Kai-wun, a professor at NTU’s Institute of Plant Biology, has actively developed an oncidium with a new color. Through genetic engineering, he successfully created the white oncidium “Honey Snow.” Meanwhile Yang ­Chang-hsien, chair of National ­Chung ­Hsing University’s Graduate Institute of Biotechnology and vice president of the university, discovered a technique to alter the shape of orchid lips. Finally, Chan Ming-­tsair, a research fellow at the Academia Sinica’s Agricultural Biotechnology Research Center, discovered genes related to the timing of flowering. Manipulating these genes can cause orchids to bloom earlier.

Sequencing the horse phalaenopsis

NCKU’s Orchid R&D Center, which has been established for 20 years, participated in an international project from 2009 to 2014 that successfully sequenced the genes of the horse phalaenopsis (Phalaenopsis equestris), a moth orchid species native to Taiwan.

Phalaenopsis equestris is the first orchid anywhere in the world to have its entire genome sequenced.” Chen Hong-hwa explains that over the course of five years the center worked with 13 different research teams in Belgium, France, mainland China and elsewhere to transcribe the plant’s genome, which was found to contain 29,431 genes. 

Why was the horse phalaenopsis chosen?

“Since it’s a pretty small orchid that grows quickly, it’s an advantageous choice for use in plant research.” Chen points out that the Royal Horticultural Society has listed 31,031 varieties of orchids, 19,445 of which are related to Phalaenopsis equestris. The sequencing of its genome is having major spillover effects for research into other moth orchids.

Clever Schemers, new orchids

On that basis, Hsu Chia-chi, a doctoral student in the Department of Life Sciences at NCKU and one of Chen’s students, published some of this groundbreaking research in the American journal Plant Physiology. His paper, “Three R2R3-MYB Transcription Factors Regulate Distinct Floral Pigmentation Patterning in Phalaenopsis Orchids,” immediately attracted a lot of international attention.

In a nutshell, the research identified the regulator genes for red pigmentation in moth orchids. With gene regulation, you can get red streaks to appear or disappear at any place on the flower. The discovery has ushered in a whole new class of orchids: “Clever Schemers.”

By injecting an agrobacterium carrying the gene PeMYB2 into a flower petal and sparking anthocyanin synthesis, a red pattern emerges. With this process, it’s even possible to create cute images on the petals, such as Mickey Mouse or hearts.

The name “Clever Schemer” was contributed by Hsu’s mother.

Hsu says that because he was engaged in researching color in moth orchids, his lab for all intents and purposes became his home. He would catch flak from family members on the rare occasions they got to see him: “What on earth are you so busy with?” On his graduation day, he presented an orchid whose pigmentation he had successfully changed to his mother, and she was moved, ­blurting out: “I didn’t realize what a clever schemer my son was!” Hsu thus came to name these fruits of his many years of hard work as “Clever Schemers.”

The perfect flower

Fragrance is another important focus of moth orchid research.

Confucius said that orchids in deep mountain gorges are no less fragrant for the lack of people to smell them. But in truth, the elegantly beautiful moth orchid typically has no fragrance at all. “Rare is the flower that has the best of both worlds: numerous large blooms and a sweet fragrance,” notes Chen.

Taiwan’s orchid breeders have assiduously engaged in hybridization in the hope of attaining a moth orchid that has both numerous beautiful blooms and a sweet scent, but their efforts were long for naught. Even when they happened on something that looked promising with hybridization, it would last only one generation, and the grandchildren would once again be scentless. “The problem with hybrids,” says Chen, “is that some species’ chromosomes are large and some are small, and they don’t match up.” After much basic research, Chen came to the conclusion that to produce a beautiful and fragrant orchid by conventional breeding was a tall order. “For the best of both worlds, you’ve got to go to the genetic level and find the key genes to introduce.”

Stuff of daily life

The NCKU Orchid R&D Center has used biotech to add value to the orchid industry by pushing orchids beyond their purely decorative uses, bringing orchid research out of the laboratory and creating products for people to use in their everyday lives.

“We’ve already found a few key genes, and we’ve applied for Taiwan and US patents so as to protect our intellectual property rights,” explains Chen. To date, they’ve obtained eight orchid gene patents and transferred two scent-related genetic techniques to biotech companies with the aim of creating commercially viable products.

The bellina moth orchid (Phalaenopsis bellina), which is native to Malaysia, does produce a scent. Chen notes that after it was introduced into Taiwan for crossbreeding, it won the top prize for its scent from the All Japan Orchid Society.

The NCKU Orchid R&D Center has transferred technology and provided guidance to Lan Hui Biotech, which is successfully extracting orchid embryonin for use in cosmetics. It has also taken bellina’s fragrance for a series of products, including essential oils, perfumes, soaps, and facial masks.

What’s more, the Orchid Biotechnology and Creativity Industry University Alliance is also trying to put orchid fragrance into food products, such as chocolate, cookies, tea, dalu gravy noodles and so forth.

From a global perspective, Taiwan’s orchids are indeed quite distinctive. “Different flowers have different associations, and in Taiwan moth orchids are associated with the word ‘happiness.’” Chen explains that Taiwan’s moth orchids’ strong suits are their long lives and lengthy flowering, as well as their hardiness in transport and the full round shapes of their blooms. The monkey face orchids (Dracula simia), bee orchids (Ophrys apifera), and vanda orchids grown abroad all lack round blooms, leaving Taiwan’s moth orchids with the singular distinction of being both large and round.

“So long as you believe, then happiness is right before your eyes.” How apt these words are—both for moth orchids and for the Taiwan orchid industry’s hopes for the future!



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