For This Young Russian Grower, Orchids' Charm Is in Their Leaves

USUALLY people think of orchids for their huge, magnificent flowers," Igor Belitsky says, "and think that plants without flowers are a bit ugly and not interesting."

But this young orchid grower from Moscow doesn't agree. Mr. Belitsky specializes in orchids with beautiful leaves but whose flowers he describes as "not significant."

Such orchids come - as displayed in his small presentation of them at the World Orchid Show here - in two groups. One group is known as "jewel orchids." Although some of their flowers are fragrant, they are not what Belitsky would call of any "use as cut flowers." Sometimes they help him identify the precise species of a jewel orchid. But "in some cases we ... cut away the appearing flower stalk in order not to spoil the decorativeness of the plant itself," he says.

The other group Belitsky and his colleague Nikolai Bersenev grow consists of a cross-section of different well-known species that are usually grown for their flowers, but of which individuals have been found with variegated leaves: They may be variegated dendrobiums, cymbidiums, or paphiopedilums.

Originally found in the wild and then brought into cultivation, particularly in Japan, these variegated forms deserve to be better known in Western countries, Belitsky says. To him they are a symbol of the aesthetic and philosophical attitudes of the Orient, which he suggests the West needs "to approach" more for its own good.

Jewel orchids are his primary interest, however. The term includes such genera as Anoectochilus, Goodyera, Ludisia, Erythrodes, and others. Generally very small, the plants are usually no more than five or six inches in height.

Belitsky waxes lyrical about the spectacular character of their leaves:

"Looking at the leaves you can imagine yourself in a jewelry shop - the leaf is like a plush or velvet cover [its color can be green, red-brown, brown, or black] on which all these necklaces, diamonds and other precious things are displayed." The extraordinary, intricate patterns of veins are what strike people on first encounter with these unusual plants.

In the 19th century, jewel orchids were at their peak of popularity in Europe as cultivated plants. Many species were then listed, virtually all of them long since vanished from cultivation. Belitsky reckons their special needs and demand for extra care account for this neglect - and, maybe, the "laziness" of growers.

Perhaps changing taste has something to do with it, too. They were valued as table decorations in Victorian times. Belitsky hopes to revive interest in them today, and is sure there is already a trend in that direction.

BY force of circumstance, Belitsky is an amateur grower. But "my dream," he says, "is to start an orchid-growing business in Moscow" when the financial climate improves.

He has publicized his own jewel orchids abroad and sold some: in Rome in 1991, in Japan last year, as well as in Glasgow this spring. More than 12 years of growing jewel orchids has give him expertise. He advises newcomers on the most important factors of growing - medium or substrate, temperature, and light.

Belitsky has also had some success with hybridizing, and he is keen to continue, since little is known about the intricacies of hybridizing for foliage patterns rather than flowers. He has crossed two Ludisias to produce a third, which combines desirable features from each: One has fine veining, the other fragrance in the flower. "Thus obtained," he says, "was a dark-leaved hybrid with fragrant flowers."

His other concern with these jewel orchids is that they are increasingly depleted in the wild (their main populations are in Asian countries). His aim is to select, collect, and propagate more of them, using microclonal techniques if possible, to ensure survival of his favorite plant.

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