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Beauty & Good Taste

Admired in our homes and responsible for vanilla ice cream — the secrets of these mystical and useful plants are revealed by one of the world’s top orchid experts, Dr. Joseph Arditti ’65.

The <em>Dendrobium nobile</em> orchid as illustrated by John Nugent Fitch in <em>The Orchid Album</em> (1886).
The Dendrobium nobile orchid as illustrated by John Nugent Fitch in The Orchid Album (1886).

The origin of Joseph Arditti's orchid fascination is a simple one. It all began when he was an undergraduate and found a job helping a wealthy Bel Air resident cultivate his orchids. He repotted and did other tasks at first, but then something else took over — his work became inspiring.

Today, two of the world’s top five orchid scientists hail from USC College. Arditti, a 1965 graduate, completed his dissertation on orchid seed germination back when botany was in full bloom at the university. Through his dedication and lifetime achievements, he is now the world’s leading orchid physiologist and development biologist.

Arditti’s friend and colleague, Dr. Robert Dressler, is a 1951 College graduate who continued his studies at Harvard University, where he earned his Ph.D. Today, Dressler is the world’s leading orchid taxonomist.

Retired since 2001 from the University of California, Irvine, where he was professor of biology, Arditti has never lost his strong Trojan spirit. His USC banner hung in his laboratory for 35 years. He is also the proud father of USC College graduate Jonathan Arditti ’08, who is currently pursuing graduate studies in forensic psychology.

Orchid biologist Dr. Joseph Arditti ’65 with his son, Jonathan Arditti ’08. Dr. Arditti has assembled a world-class 2,000+ orchid book and journal collection in his Irvine, Calif., home, where he continues his research. Photo credit Emily Cavalcanti.

Arditti lives with his son in Irvine, Calif., and spends his time, when not traveling or giving talks to orchid societies, in his sanctuary — a space he sequestered in their newly reconfigured home for his personal library.

“I have always wanted a space for my extensive botany book collection. Some of the books are very old, dating back to the 1880s. Some are rare — most I bought and a few were given by people I don’t know but who heard of my research. In totality they tell the consummate story of orchid science,” he said.

What has kept Arditti enthralled with orchids through the years, when early on in his career there was little known about orchid physiology? “As soon as I answered one question another one came up. Even after being retired, I can think of enough questions for several lifetime careers,” he explained.

Arditti also finds orchids fascinating because of their shapes, varieties, diversity and way of life. In addition to their importance as the major ingredient in vanilla ice cream, orchids are a major cut flower and more recently popular as house plants in several countries. According to Arditti, breeding and selling orchids to hobby growers and as cut flowers may yield higher profits than vanilla production.

Dusting off a number of his beloved orchid tomes, Arditti introduces each book as if an old friend. “There are 600 to 800 genera of orchids depending on who you are talking with, 30,000 to 40,000 species and hundreds of thousands of hybrids,” he said.

Arditti prizes the British watercolor-plated volumes above all others in his orchid book collection. “They are simply beautiful. Not just the colors, but the details are not equaled,” he said.

He notes that 10 to 12 percent of all flowering plants are orchids. “Just like in fashion, there are hybrids being created as we speak,” he added. “They last several years and then new ones emerge on the scene, make some people a lot of money and fade away.”

Even though orchids have been studied since ancient times, their popularity emerged in the late 1700s and early 1800s when British gentry began growing them. Approximately 15 to 20 years ago, their popularity as potted house plants sold in supermarkets and hardware stores exploded. They are propagated — germinated and cloned — in bottles by the millions. By contrast, in nature orchid seeds do not germinate unless infected by a fungus.

Arditti has authored and edited voluminous and scholarly books on orchids. “I employed a cookbook approach in one book about cloning orchids that got out of hand. I am admittedly incapable of writing a simple book. Of course it was the cookbook style that sold more copies. It is my Ravel’s Boléro,” he sighed.


Photos 2, 3, 4, 7 and 8 credit Dr. Tim-Wing Yam, Singapore Botanic Gardens.

8 Fascinating Facts About Orchids

1. Vanilla is an orchid that produces long capsules called beans. Without vanilla, we would not have one of our most delicious desserts of all time — vanilla ice cream! 

2. Orchid shows spring up everywhere and some of the best are in Singapore (above), Taiwan, Seoul, Tokyo, New York, Miami, and Chicago.

3. Singapore, like a second home to Joseph and Jonathan Arditti, is also home to one of Joseph’s favorite orchids: Vanda Miss Joaquim, a natural hybrid and the national flower of Singapore.

4. In nature, orchid are of all imaginable and some hard-to-imagine colors. Under cultivation, orchids are bred in every color including black, like Coelogyne pandurata.

5. It has been debated whether orchids are mentioned in the Bible. According to Arditti, they are not. 

6. As one of his detailed demonstrations of the power of natural selection, Charles Darwin wrote Fertilisation of Orchids

7. Orchids such as Arachnis Maggie­ Oei can grow to 6 feet in height.

8. Dendrobium crumenatum flowers eight days after a rain and smells similar to a rose, attracting bees that are eaten by spiders, which spin webs in front of some flowers.


Read more articles from USC College Magazine's Spring/Summer 2009 issue.