They later visited an orchid greenhouse, met orchid growers and scientists, and began growing orchids in Charleston. About two years ago, Saxton decided to test his green thumb by buying some ghost orchid rootstock from a commercial greenhouse. The low success rate at keeping the nursery-produced ghost orchids alive is surpassed by an even more dismal record at getting the domesticated orchids to bloom.
"Of the few that survive to adulthood, only a handful have bloomed in captivity in greenhouses," Saxton said. "Mine may be the only to have grown, and bloomed, in a totally artificial environment."
Since thousands of ghost orchid rootstock cuttings have been sold to would-be growers over the years, producing fewer than a half-dozen adults that were able to bloom, "I needed to figure out what was missing from the equation most people were following," Saxton said.
The Australian, who buys, refurbishes and sells mid 20th-century furniture, spent months researching the rare orchid and its various domestic growing schemes. He tried and failed at several approaches of his own before coming up with a growth chamber needed to replicate the orchid's "exceptionally complicated" survival habitat.
Saxton's growth chamber controls the amount of oxygen, carbon dioxide and ethylene the orchid is exposed to. It also regulates humidity, light exposure and air pressure, and uses an inner chamber equipped with an ultraviolet light to zap any pathogens entering the system.
The roots of Saxton's ghost orchid spread through the cracked surface of a hunk of bark from a cork tree. A cupboard in the couple's South Hills home is filled with chemicals used in creating the self-blended fertilizer mix that nourishes the rare orchid.
"You need very precise conditions for the orchid to bloom," he said. "You have to change its metabolism during the day and also at night."
With his homegrown ghost orchid having bloomed twice, Saxton is ready to build a much bigger commercial-sized growth chamber. His intention is to grow and sell ghost orchids mature enough to produce flower spikes.
"It will take about three years to raise them to adulthood," he said. "So far, no one has been able to offer ghost orchids with flowers."
A reliable system for propagating the rare orchid is needed to ensure that it survives habitat loss, poaching, climate change and a dwindling population.
"If we could have a ghost orchid nursery, with 300 or 400 orchids in bloom, maybe we could experiment with producing a hybrid to give it the genetic strength it needs to make it in the world," Saxton said.
Meanwhile, Saxton said he would like to take a little time off before beginning the next stage of his orchid project. "If I could tell you what it took, in terms of hours and money, to get this far, you'd shoot me as an idiot," he said.Reach Rick Steelhammer at rsteelham...@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5169.