Monday, 26 December 2011

Reading to fuel your passion

If you’re looking for orchid-related books to use up those Christmas gift vouchers, take a look at The Orchid Trilogy, among the great ‘hidden masterpieces’ of English fiction, according to The Guardian.

This quirky title, which hit the best-seller list recently, comprises three strangely moving autobiographical novels: The Military Orchid; A Mine of Serpents and The Goose Cathedral.
Written by a classic orchid maniac of the first water, Jocelyn Brooke was obsessed by his strange twin passions for orchids and, would you believe, fireworks.

Brooke’s love affair with wild flowers and home-made fireworks began as a boy in Kent. But there was one particular elusive flower that captured his attention. Over three decades and through two world wars, in the deserts of Libya and the woodlands of Italy, in the chalk downs of England, he searched continually for the elusive Orchis militaris, the military orchid.

The stories recreate a poignant picture of England at war and peace in the 20th century. The Military Orchid is something of a comic masterpiece. Kingsley Amis described Brooke as ‘brilliant and exciting’, John Betjeman called him ‘as subtle as the devil’, and to Anthony Powell he was ‘one of the most interesting and talented’ writers to emerge after the Second World War.

Not bad for someone who was sent down from university and struggled to find his way in life as he struggled to become a writer. He was alternately indulged by his family or forced to get a job: he tried (unsuccessfully) bookselling, publishing, even working as a wine merchant in Folkestone. As the 1930s unfolded, he suffered periods of depression and illness. He wrote voluminously but managed to publish only an article on fireworks.

One writer who influenced him most was Marcel Proust, whose A la Recherche du Temps Perdu revolves around themes of time – and well-documented references to cattleya.

In The Military Orchid, Brooke uses botany a way of looking at the world, of categorising and describing other human beings. With great subtlety, he makes out of the botanical obsession – something longed for, but never found – a metaphor for life itself.

Interestingly, Brooke also depicts orchids in his single children’s book, The Wonderful Summer, which revolves around a botanical hoax: the deliberate planting of the rare Ghost Orchid to fool an orchid collector.

Another title for book collectors is Deceptive Beauties: The World of Wild Orchids by Michael Pollan with photographs by Christian Ziegler, published by University of Chicago Press.

Although John Ruskin condemned them as ‘prurient apparitions’, across the centuries orchids have captivated the public with their elaborate exoticism, their powerful perfumes, and their sublime seductiveness. Read of wild tales of orchid conquest, and hear how these flowers can survive and thrive in the harshest of environments, from tropical cloud forests to the Arctic, from semi-deserts to rocky mountainsides. What other flowers, after all, can mimic the pheromones and even appearance of female insects, so much so that some male bees prefer intimacy with the orchids over sex with other bees?

Orchids rate a mention, not surprisingly, in Fifty Plants that Changed the Course of History by Bill Laws (David & Charles). Laws is fascinated by the profound impact plants have on our everyday lives and takes us on a colourful tour to the plants that have had the greatest impact on human civilisation – from rice and wheat that feed whole populations, to herbs and spices that are highly prized for their medicinal qualities, with a few diversions past pineapples, sweet peas, mulberry, tulip … and vanilla.

In a world first for online publishing, New Zealand has come up with a Make your own plant books system. It works by automatically harvesting information and images from the New Zealand Plant Network’s website. Site users select any combination of native or exotic plant species, from orchids to moss, to include in their own personalised book. They then select a cover type, write their own title, choose a species to feature on the cover, write their own introduction or select a pre-written one. This innovative conservation initiative is sure to boost knowledge about New Zealand’s natural world.

Keep an eye open for a seminal orchid book due out later this year, although perhaps not your typical coffee table volume.

Orchidaceae is the largest monocotyledon family and perhaps the largest plant family in terms of number of species, approximately 25,000. However, it remains one of the least understood. The fossil record is poor, and active research has been relatively scarce until recent years, in part because of the sheer size and cosmopolitan distribution of the family.

The Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, has squared up to the issue. With one of the oldest collections of living tropical orchids and more orchid scientists than any other single scientific institution, it is appropriate that it has made itself the hub for the monumental series on orchids. Genera Orchidacearum (GO) is set to run to stonking six volumes. Numbers 1-5 have been published and the last one is scheduled to appear in 2012.

Each volume offers a comprehensive treatment for each genus, including complete nomenclature, description, distribution (with map), anatomy, palynology, cytogenetics, phytochemistry, phylogenetics, pollination, ecology, and economic uses. Cultivation notes are included for those genera known to be in hobbyist collections – complete with line drawings and colour photographs. Although priced at £125 each, these are surely the ultimate in orchid reference.


Saturday, 24 December 2011

Darwin and the Christmas orchid

Mystery parcel
On a chilly morning in January 1862, an unsuspecting postman trudged up the drive to the house of Charles Darwin with a strange parcel.

Already in the early throes of orchid addiction, Darwin unwrapped a bundle of orchid specimens from Robert Bateman, which he’d requested for his ongoing research into insect pollination.

One plant was particularly intriguing: the Angraecum sesquipedale Thouars, a large Madagascar orchid with star-like flowers of ‘snow-white wax … and whip-like nectary of astonishing length’. Almost a foot, give or take an inch or two, as he discovered, when he set out to measure them. Darwin was hooked.
Darwin had first caught the bug in 1860. By July1861, he took his wife and daughter Henrietta to Torquay while he diverted himself considering the many species of wild orchids to be on the shore.

‘The orchids have been
a splendid sport
On his return home, he was verging on orchid mania as he searched near Down and struggled to concentrate on his other work. According to a recent article, he described them as ‘wonderful creatures’,and found perfection in their form. They became his splendid sport, his ‘hobby horse’ and he was ‘sillily & very idly interested in them’, saying ‘this subject is a passion with me’.

He knew this group of orchids, also called Star of Bethlehem, was pollinated by moths, and noted: ‘In Madagascar there must be moths with proboscises capable of extension to a length of between ten and eleven inches!’ He pondered this postulated pollinator, and speculated that the Sphingidae was the most likely family. This was arguably the first predicted creature in the field of evolution.

Greenhouse effects
Darwin thought the long nectary was an adaptation to lure moths to the flower for the purposes of pollination. To test his hypothesis, he used a cylinder to imitate a moth’s feeding process and inserted it into the nectary.

On its removal, he saw the orchid’s pollinia had adhered to its base. He then reinserted the cylinder into the nectary and had some success in causing the pollinia to be pushed onto the stigma.

On further experiments in his greenhouse (pictured), he decided that the relationship was so specific, that if the moth were to become extinct on Madagascar, so too would the orchid.

By May of that year, he’d published what is now considered to be a classic text on evolution and orchids, The Various Contrivances by which Orchids are Fertilised by Insects.

British readers fell upon the book, undeterred by the reputation of Darwin’s other, more infamous tome of 1859, On the Origin of Species, which caused something of a stir.

Moth mans prophecy
They accepted his explanation of how natural selection could be responsible for the adaptations seen in the orchids – but slightly suspicious of the missing and mysterious Madagascan moth – some, including the influential Duke of Argyll, seeing as clear proof of God’s work.

However, Darwin’s colleague, Alfred Russel Wallace, an explorer and naturalist himself, defended Darwin’s corner, came up with a credible scenario, starting with the time when the nectary was only six inches, and was chiefly fertilised by a species of moth which appeared at the time of the plant’s flowering, and whose proboscis was of the same length. If orchids had a variation in nectary length, those with the shorter nectaries
were not pollinated because the moth did not have to struggle to get all of the nectar and therefore did not cause the pollinia to be transferred. Conversely, flowers with the longest nectaries would be pollinated most often. And so, moths’ proboscises evolved to greater lengths.

Naturally, Darwin hoped someone would find the wretched moth. Wallace agreed, urging other naturalists to keep their eyes open and rulers handy. After a challenge in the press, Hermann Muller came forward with a close contender: his brother had found a moth in Brazil with a ten-inch proboscis. The hunt continued apace.

Years went by, and Darwin experienced a pang of doubt – and resentment. In the second edition of his orchid book (1877), he insisted on his prediction, adding: ‘This belief of mine has been ridiculed by some entomologists.’

Darwin died in 1882, but it took almost 20 years for the world to catch up with him. In 1903, Rothschild and Jordan found a giant moth which they named Xanthopan morgani praedicta. The had wingspans of about 150mm and proboscises of about 300mm, and had never been observed pollinating the orchid, because they are active at night and are apparently quite rare.

Web of intrigue
It is curious to note that just this past month, a unique night-flowering orchid has only just been discovered in New Britain. Experts believed the orchid adapted to the scarcity of the moth by remaining open and attractive for weeks.

In later years, scientists have pondered the co-dependence between the flower and the moth, by which the flower is guaranteed pollination and the moth is guaranteed nectar.

Another theory suggests that the long proboscises are an adaptation developed by the moths to avoid predation by spiders that hide on flowers and ambush pollinators. By having a long proboscis, the moth is able to drink nectar from a farther distance and keep itself out of reach of predatory spiders. The moth encourages the flower to elongate its spur to make certain the moth gets close enough to the flower to successfully pollinate it. Lepidopterist and fellow blogger Jacqueline Rae comments that here the moth is actually making the first evolutionary move and the flower is just changing to keep up with its pollinator.

Finally, just to prove that orchids really are bonkers, another Madagascan orchid, Angraecum longicalcar Bosser, has been found with an even longer nectary – nearly 40cm or 16 inches long. Currently, such specimens are propagated by growers keen to preserve the island’s native plants, but is there, somewhere in Madagascar, a gigantic moth with a proboscis even longer than Darwins Madagascan hawk moth?

By Pamela Kelt

Angraecum eburneum var longicalcar, right,
Others: Wikimedia

Monday, 12 December 2011

Floral extravaganza

Cuttings #6, December 2011
America’s big New Year celebration The Tournament of Roses Parade is being rather overtaken by orchids – at least on Paramount Pictures’ float celebrating 100 years in showbiz.

‘Unforgettable’ moments and images from its past, present and future, will begin with World War I plane from William A. Wellman’s 1927 silent-drama Wings. To begin with, crisp white stars created in sweet rice and dendrobium orchid florets will float over the lush red carpet gardens running the entire length of the float. Other displays honour such iconic vehicles as Greased Lightning and the USS Enterprise, created in white coconut chips with accents of silverleaf protea petals and black seaweed. The spectacular entry concludes with real fireworks and ‘floral explosions’ created in thousands of yellow Oncidium orchids, orange Star 2000 roses, yellow Gold Strike roses, gold hybrid Vanda and James Story orchids.

A more traditional orchid is the star in the Philippines, which now has two national flowers, after officials declared the ‘waling-waling’, or Vanda sanderiana, as the new national flower of the Philippines together with the sampaguita, according to local press.

Sampaguita is native to India and Arabia while waling-waling is not only indigenous but endemic to the Philippines. In fact, the Philippines is home to more than 1,000 species of orchids known for their exotic beauty, and some claim the the rarest and most beautiful of them is waling-waling, also known as the ‘queen of Philippine flowers’.

One of the largest orchid species in the world, it has become the most sought-after flower in Mindanao for its large and colourful hybrids, growing on tree trunks in the rainforests of Davao, Sultan Kudarat, and other parts of Mindanao.

It blooms only once a year, between July and October. However, the continuous plunder of this prized specimen has brought it to near extinction.

The disappearance of a once-common species of orchid bee from forests in Brazil highlights the fragile balance of nature. The Atlantic coastal forest biome in Brazil was once a contiguous and unique ecosystem, but is now fragmented, and has turned into an archipelago-like series of forest remnants.

André Nemésio of the Universidade Federal de Uberlândia collected more than 1,600 specimens as part of a survey to see if the Euglossa marianae, present 40 years ago, was still there. This was the first survey of orchid bees in three forest reserves. The good news was that a different orchid bee was dominant at each of the three sites. Sadly, the target species, Euglossa marianae, had seemingly vanished altogether, raising the possibility that it is extinct.

Orchid bees occupy a special place in evolutionary biology. The Various Contrivances by Which Orchids are Fertilised by Insects by Charles Darwin revealed orchids’ astonishing adaptations for attracting pollinators. Euglossine or orchid bees have equally impressive adaptations. According to Nemésio, males that visit orchids have specially modified legs that allow them to gather and retain esters later used in female attractants.

The apparent disappearance of Euglossa marianae is a ‘wake-up call’ to pay attention to the implications of habitat fragmentation and to monitor the status of species sensitive to change, according to a report.

Thousands of Burmese orchid traders are flouting a legal requirement to register their business, a government official has admitted.

Apparently, most orchid growers and sellers had no idea that they were in breach of the Protection of Wild Animals, Wild Plants and Conservation of Natural Areas Law, which also precludes selling cut orchid flowers without a permit.

No-one is allowed to pick orchids, such as the well known Dendrobium nobile (pictured) from the wild – and those who want to grow orchids for commercial purposes must register, said the ministry, which is now running education programs, while also focusing its attention on clamping down on the export of wild orchids, mostly to China where they are highly sought after for use in traditional medicine. One minister said: ‘They believe tissue which is situated in the stem of some orchids can prevent cancer cell extension and sometimes it can cure cancer as well. People also believe if they put this stem into their tea they will look younger and be healthier.’

There are officially 841 orchid species but experts believe there could be as many as 1,500 if more extensive surveys are conducted.

TRENDS, short for The Transect for Environmental Monitoring and Decision Making, is gathering historical data to determine any changes. Flowers are changing their flowering times, such as orchids flowering 20 days earlier that they once did. In some places whole plant communities are changing their composition.

Experts are unsure if this is due to climate change, but new evidence will allow them to predict how these systems are going to change in the future. Scientists have programmed an iPhone app and science program on the popular Heysen Trail walking trail. Follow progress on the website.

Meanwhile, in northern Tasmania, local enthusiasts are making a difference by monitoring an amazing orchid-area with 50 different orchid species in 20 hectares of coastal bush.

One of Tasmania’s biodiversity hotspots is not far from Port Sorell, adjoining the main road from Devonport to Squeaking Point with farm land on every side, yet it hosts hundreds of species of native plants and the variety is phenomenal.

Robin Garnett and Phil Collier are monitoring and documenting what's present and are actively managing their patch, to keep the balance right.


Friday, 2 December 2011

Gilt trip

Cuttings #5: December 2011
Now it’s December, one can use the ‘C’ word, I suppose, so I’ve already compiled a list of delightful orchid prints as a hint to hubby (complete with URLs for the poor bloke). One thing, however, that won’t be included is a solid gold Christmas tree, decorated with solid gold phalaenopsis orchids.

A jewellery store in Tokyo’s upmarket Ginza district invited flower arrangement artist Shogo Kariyazaki to create the lavish Golden Christmas Tree. A total of 12kg of gold has been fashioned into the 2.4m tree, adorned with orchids, ribbons and hearts. It is valued at £1.3m ($2m), and apparently not for sale. So that’s all right then.

Goats and golfers
This week’s featured publication is Pitchcare Magazine. (It’s amazing where orchids will lead you.) Here you’ll find an absolutely fascinating piece on the rare lizard orchid, which has some quirky features, not least is that fact that its flowers give off a goat-like odour, particularly in the evening.
Himantoglossum hircinum was first discovered in the UK in the 1600s by the ale-loving Thomas Johnson, an apothecary whose main stomping grounds were in Kent and London where he searched for rare plants.

According to Dr Mark Hampton, an obvious enthusiast, populations of this species in the UK are restricted to around 20 sites, often golf courses. In fact, it is thought to have been spread around suitable courses by seed on the clothes, clubs and shoes of unknowing golfers.

Another curiosity is that the earliest population recorded was lost in 1641 due to road widening. As Dr Hampton avers, this surely must be the first recorded damage caused to rare wildlife by road improvement.

Across the pond, New Jersey orchid fans are in for a treat this spring when Duke Farms in Hillsborough completes a $45m renovation. Created by ‘Buck’ Duke at the end of the 19th century, the spread is one of the largest privately owned parcels of undeveloped land in the state. Already an agricultural, horticultural and ecological gem, the institution is refurbishing the grand 1903 conservatory, and renaming it the Orchid Range. (The style is reminiscent of Edinburgh’s 1858 temperate palm house (pictured), the tallest Victorian glasshouse in the world.

It will house a new indoor orchid display garden and a temperate coastal plain garden. Outdoor landscaping will feature native plants, including orchids native to New Jersey.

Flight of fancy
Finally, as the temperatures finally start to drop and I move my own orchids away from the cold glass of my dining room window, it could be time for a heart-warming piece of whimsy about a rather different type of orchid. Hummingbirds, in fact, as described by a writer in the National Post who helps Anna’s hummingbirds to survive a Canadian winter. They weigh no more than a nickel each and are named after Anna Masséna, the Duchess of Rivoli, ‘a mere thimbleful of feathers, a winged orchid’.

Any excuse to use this delightful image, too, from 1871, courtesy of Reynolda House, Winston-Salem, North Carolina.


NOTE: Just a day after I posted the above, an almost IDENTICAL painting sold at Sotheby
s, New York for a whopping sum of nearly $2 million, almost four times the estimate. Check it out here!

Thursday, 24 November 2011

Queen of the night

Cuttings #4, November 2011
The first orchid to flower at night has been discovered lurking in New Britain, not a Cameron concept but an island near Papua New Guinea. Photos reveal it to be a rather fleshy, green three-petalled specimen, with dangling unsightly tendrils, nicknamed 'moon flower' by the Daily Mail.

Pollinated by moths, it opened its petals at 10pm and shut them again at 10am, according to Dutch orchid specialist Ed de Vogel, who has just published a paper on the new flower, with the rather lyrical title: Nocturne for an unknown pollinator.

Somewhat exotically – especially considering how quirky the orchid kingdom is – each bud flowered for a single night, closing a few hours after sunrise. In a scene more reminiscent of a creepy movie, De Vogel only discovered the secret of the flower when he took one back to the Netherlands, and found out why the buds seemingly withered without ever opening. Called the Bulbophyllum nocturnum, this unique specimen was found in a region of lowland rainforest on the Pacific island. De Vogel also suggests that nocturnal flies are responsible for pollination, possibly under the impression the orchid is a type of fungus.

The most famous night-flowering plant is the queen of the night cactus, Selenicereus grandiflorus, see right. Each individual dinner plate-sized flower opens for one night per year and attract pollinating bats.

One wonders how many more secretive orchids are awaiting discovery …

Sweet and high?
Another orchid that sounds common, but is veiled in secrecy
is the vanilla. It seems extraordinary that until recently, even the basic biology of such orchids was little known – despite the popularity of vanilla itself and orchids in general. Nobody was even sure what fertilised them. It turned out to be a solitary bee (in the wild).

In cultivation, fertilisation is done by young girls, whose small and agile fingers are adapted to lifting a flap of tissue so that the pollen can be brushed over onto the stamen. This delicate method was devised by a 12-year-old boy, a slave, on the island of Reunion in 1842. Since a vanillery can have hundreds of vines, and since the vines open only one flower a day, and since fertilisation has to be done within a short time frame of an hour or two, the girls are busy. One farm may have to fertilise a million blossoms in a year. Now you know why real vanilla is so expensive.

All sorts of mysteries are resolved in a rather specialist but nonetheless intriguing tome: Vanilla orchids: natural history and cultivation, by Ken Cameron (Timber, $34.95). Cameron looks at the three commercial kinds of vanilla and their hundred or so close relatives, along with the history, biology, culture and trade in vanilla.

Cameron, who is the professor of botany and director of the State Herbarium at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, also reminds us that also vanillas are neither parasites or epiphytes. Cultivated orchids grow from seeds, but after climbing tall trees, sometimes the roots rot away, leaving an aerial plant still thriving.

Synthetic vanilla is derived from a single component, vanillin, found in wood pulp. Connoisseurs maintain that real, pure vanilla, with its complex odour blended from 250 chemicals is worth the price. But beware of cheap imitations. Tourists in Latin America should be wary of a product sold south of the border that is cheap, smells of vanilla and can destroy your kidneys.

Doritaenopsis seems to be the hardest word ...
Rather different specimens were in the spotlight recently as Elton John joined celebrities at the latest World Orchid Conference in Singapore where he was presented with an exotic bloom to be named after him. The phalaenopsis hybrid has the tongue-twisting name of Doritaenopsis I-Hsin Black Jack X Doritaenopsis Ever Spring Diamond, but shall henceforth be known as the Doritaenopsis Sir Elton John. The orchid is described as featuring ‘a striking magenta pattern and a golden forked lip, over large white petals’. So, just a little over the top, as you might imagine.
‘I've had a lupin and a rose named after me,’ said Sir Elton, ‘but never before an orchid.’

NB: The 21st World Orchid Conference will be held at the Sandton Convention Centre in Johannesburg in 2014, and the theme 'Orchids: Gold in the Green Age’.

The world’s largest orchid is in the news again in form of the gargantuan 300-pound tiger orchid currently blooming in spectacular style at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. It is expected to produce anywhere from 850 to 1,700 flowers –not bad for a plant that isn’t guaranteed to bloom at all, even in the wild.

But it’s not all natural. Curator David Horak’s team has been treating the Grammatophyllum speciosum with an experimental nutrient called Turbo Thrive that’s only available to insiders.

The specimen is no slouch – blooming twice in its 13 years at the Garden. In 2004, the orchid produced about 100 flowers, and two years ago, it bore about 200. He reassures growers that it’s not illegal to fertilise orchids with performance-enhancing legal substances.


PS The author
s own orchids made their first public appearance this week in the local press, showing how they popped up in an e-book set in leafy Warwickshire ...

Caption: Vanilla orchid -

Thursday, 17 November 2011

Festive wish list: a leaf through some botanical books

IF YOU collect orchids, you collect orchid books.

While the old orchid hunters scoured the jungles and mountains for the most exotic species, I’ve had the luxury of tracking down some prize literary specimens from the comfort of my ergonomic chair, although the Amazon did feature in a way.

If you’re a fan of the Dorling Kindersley pop-up and peek books, The Plant Hunters (£30 RRP, Amazon £25.50) is irresistible. Author and journalist Carolyn Fry has directed her skills in science, conservation and natural history, to focus on man’s obsession with plants. The lushly illustrated volume comes with all manner of twiddly bits to play with. One chapter is devoted to people’s passion for orchids, and it concludes in a rather grown-up manner with modern plant hunters and the changing role of the botanic garden.

If you don’t mind diluting your orchids further, try Flower hunters, by Mary Gribbin, which Stephen Moss, The Guardian provocatively describes as a ‘compelling romp through the history of plant collecting’.

Personally, I prefer the epic grandeur of In Pursuit of Plants by Philip Short, although the title gives no indication of the sheer bonkerosity of the characters he tracks across the five continents, driven to collect their specimens. The index of his book on the experiences of 19th- and early 20th-century plant collectors alone is diverting: flies, abominable (Australian); camels, poisoned; caterpillars, irritant; accommodation, sinister; lamas, hunted by; grisly bear, attack by; rattlesnakes, congregation of; insects, collection lost due to tribal warfare; Richard Spruce, plot to kill … You might find it easier to get a second-hand copy from the states.

The Scots have always had a huge role in horticultural history, such as the likes of John Veitch who in 1768 came to England to find his fortune, starting out as a gardener for the aristocracy. Realising that horticultural mania had begun to spread throughout the social classes, John’s son James opened a nursery in Exeter and began to send some of the first commercial plant collectors into the Americas, Australia, India, Japan, China and the South Seas. In Seeds of Fortune: A Great Gardening Dynasty (£18.99 RRP, Amazon £16.14), Ms Shephard waxes lyrical on orchid mania and lost orchids in particular. Diverting and beautifully written.

Despite the amount of material on the craziness of orchid collectors, there’s really only one book around on the subject, and it is a little dated now. Orchid Fever, by Eric Hansen (£8.99 RRP, Amazon £8.09) is summed up by its subtitle, A Horticultural Tale of Love, Lust and Lunacy. 

It starts off with Hansen travelling in the Borneo rain forest to accompany two American orchid growers in their search for Paphiopedilum sanderianum, the holy grail of orchids, and one of the rarest plants in the world. Hansen himself became obsessed with the obsession, and describes a global odyssey in his attempt to understand the perennial seduction of the orchid.

Finally, one to put on next year’s wish list is The Scent of Scandal: Greed, Betrayal, and the World's Most Beautiful Orchid by Craig Pittman, which has the experts raving. ‘If I did not know most of the main players I would have thought the author had a vivid and twisted imagination,’ exclaims one critic.

With a whiff of the Maltese Falcon, this is a true tale of obsession, greed, and lust for the unobtainable. Critics agree that the author has captured the extreme competition, unique characters, and general insanity that often typify the orchid world.

The star of the story? The infamous Phragmipedium kovachii, a rare slipper orchid discovered in Peru in 2002, became the rarest and most sought-after orchid in the world. Prices soared to $10,000 on the black market. Then one showed up at Marie Selby Botanical Gardens.

The clash between Selby’s scientists and the smugglers of the rare orchid, led to search warrants, a grand jury investigation, and criminal charges. It made headlines around the country, cost the gardens hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations, and led to tremendous turmoil and the exposure of true orchid obsessives – all revealed by investigative journalist Craig Pittman in a real-life mystery novel (available April 2012).

The Orchid Seekers, Project Gutenberg
Alexander von Humboldt and Aime Bonpland, Chimborazo, Gemälde von Friedrich Georg Weitsch (1810), wikimedia
Paphiopedilum sanderianum, as illustrated by John Day, 1886, wikimedia

Friday, 11 November 2011

Aphrodisiacs & orchidology

Part two of a history of orchids from the year dot to the era

We left the history of orchids with Dioscorides, a Green herbalist in the first century AD.

He was a firm advocate of the so-called ‘doctrine of signatures’ philosophy, whereby practitioners (I hesitate to use the word doctors), took it upon themselves to use herbs that resembled various parts of the body to treat relevant ailments. For example, snakeroot was prescribed for snake venom, or wormwood to combat intestinal parasites. The justification? ‘It was reasoned that the Almighty must have set his sign upon the various means of curing disease which he provided.’

Such a view, some might argue superstition, lasted well into the 17th century. How did orchids fit in?

Rude tubers - again
The apt reader will recall how the ancient scholars noticed how orchid tubers resembled some critical male organs. The general view is that later European scholars became obsessed with the aphrodisiac qualities of orchids, overlooking other possible benefits.

Some believed that orchid plants rose up from the drops of semen which fell to earth in meadows where animals came together to breed. However, in a recent paper, M. M. Hossain of the University of Chittagong, has a less biased account of how several 16th- and 17th-century herbalists valued orchids for other properties. Turner, an early English herbalist described the uses of orchids for the treatment of alcoholic gastritis. Around a decade later, Langham in his ‘Garden of Health’ reported antipyretic, anti-consumption and anti-diarrhoeal effects of European terrestrial orchids.

The first Western volume dedicated to orchids was Georg Eberhard Rumphius’ (1628-1702) ‘Herbarium Amboinense’ which was eventually published in 1741-1755, two of 12 volumes being devoted to orchids. ‘Bastard Helleborine’, the common name of Epipactis helleborine, was valued as a remedy for gout in European folklore. The roots of E. latifolia were used in rheumatism. Several species of Spiranthes have also been used medicinally in various diseases. S. diuretica is efficacious as a diuretic in children. In Europe a preparation from the roots of Epipactis gigantea, commonly known as the ‘Giant Orchid’, have been used as a drink to combat mania and in severe cases of illness, especially when the patient is unable to walk or move about.

Given that the later 19th-century addiction to orchids themselves was called orchidomania, this is somewhat ironic.

Mind you, in John Gerard’s ‘Herbal’, published 1597, orchids were called ‘Satyrion feminina’ because they were considered as satyrs’ food and would provoke their excesses of behaviour, so there were still die-hard adherents to the aphrodisiac theory

This dubious reputation also spread to places far away from Europe. It is mentioned in several of the oldest Indian pharmacopoeias, and even though any scientific basis to this theory has long since been refuted, people still continue to use it for the purpose. 

Strange vines in the New World
But while Europeans were using orchids for medicine, and those in the east favoured the blooms for aesthetic qualities (see part one), across in the New World, inhabitants used orchids for culinary purposes. Twenty years after Columbus arrived in 1498, Hernando Cortes found time in between overthrowing the Aztec Empire and claiming Mexico for Spain to get acquainted with a species of vanilla being cultivated for is perfume and culinary use.

The Aztecs called this vine-like orchid Tlilxochitl. They ground the seed capsules and blended them with the brown seeds of the cacao plant to produce a bitter drink that is the basis of the chocolate we have today. Of course, vanilla is still a popular flavour, but while the pods are in steady demand, artificial vanilla essence has lessened the need to cultivate plants. Today, the main vanilla crops come from Madagascar, and were recently in jeopardy thanks to a nasty fungus known only by its local name, bekorontsana, which means ‘falls to the ground often’.

Back in Europe, botanists started to take an interest in orchids around the 16th century, when German botanists began to describe in great detail every plant they came across and even initiated early attempts to classify what turned out to be the largest family of flowering plants on the planet.

It wasn’t until the early 18th century that the first horticultural book solely to be written on orchids was edited in Japan by Joan Matsuoka on the orders of the ex-Emperor Hiyashi Yama. It was called Ran-Pin, meaning varieties of orchids and was published posthumously in 1772. In England, the first record of orchids in cultivation dates back to 1731. Philip Miller mentioned several orchids in his second edition of ‘Dictionary of Gardening’ (1768).

The era of descriptive botany was overtaken by Linnaeus (1707-1778) and his science of systematics (1707-1778). Things began to accelerate, and by the end of the 18th century Olof Swartz helped orchids to be recognised as a special group of plants.

Records of the Kew Royal Botanical Gardens show that Epidendrum cochleatum flowered for the first time in cultivation in 1787. Ten years later 15 orchid species were cultivated at Kew. Orchidology was on its way.

As European empires expanded, people’s interest in these exotic blooms increased exponentially. The variety and beauty of the exotic tropical epiphytic orchids, born home in triumph by Western tradesmen and missionaries from places such as India, Burma, Malaya and the Tropical Americas and Java and Borneo, instantly attracted the attention of the horticulturists of Europe.

However, the first attempts to grow there rare plants in hot houses were a dismal failure.

● Dioscorides
● Drawing of vanilla from the Florentine Codex (made in the 1580s), Wikipedia
● Epipactis gigantea
● Georg Eberhard Rumphius, portrait from Herbarium Amboinense, 18th century, Wikipedia
● Linnaeus, Wikipedia
● Epidendrum cochleatum

By Pamela Kelt

Monday, 7 November 2011

Reviving an ancient tradition

Cuttings #3, November 2011
WHEN orchidologist Dr Saw Lwin travelled to northern Myanmar to conduct an orchid survey in the wilderness of Kachin State, one of his most surprising discoveries was in the villages of Waingmaw district.

There, he found women of the Lawngwaw (Maru) ethnic group sewing patterns in traditional clothing using fibres from the yellow-flowered waso orchid (Dendrobium moschatum).

The outfits, woven on looms, with the orchid-fibre patterns sewn by hand using porcupine quills as needles, are worn on special occasions by the Lawngwaw, a subgroup of the Kachin ethnic group.

It has been a local tradition to decorate traditional clothes with the bright yellow patterns. The stems of most orchid species are brittle, breaking too easily for use in sewing. The costumes are set to shown at the 20th World Orchid Conference in Singapore from 13-20 November.

Dr Saw Lwin said that according to accounts compiled by U Dine Lwan of the Lawngwaw Literary Committee, the practice of using orchid fibres to embellish clothing can be traced back to 500 BCE. The expert is now trying to launch a project in the area to recruit more women to help in the revival of the tradition.
Also at the conference, the 2011 Native Orchid of Singapore Coins will be unveiled on November 13 at the opening ceremony.

The Singapore Mint said the coins will be the first to bear a semi-rimless design to give the flowers a 3D effect. It will feature two orchids common to Singapore – the Grammatophyllum speciosum or Tiger Orchid, and the Cymbidium finlaysonianum, an orchid species seen growing on trees along local roads.

In the US, two conservation groups are joining forces to ensure the perpetuation and appreciation of orchids in North America and throughout the world. The 90-year old American Orchid Society (AOS) in Palm Beach County is moving its HQ to Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden in Coral Gables, the conservation and education-based botanic garden, Florida.

The AOS will bring to Fairchild Garden more than 15,000 varieties of orchids and it will also continue to publish its monthly magazine, Orchids. Fairchild Garden’s own annual international Orchid Festival is set to expand.

Founded in 1921, the AOS has more than 10,000 members and 600 affiliated orchid societies around the world. Founded in 1938, Fairchild has more than 45,000 members. Both seem to prove that orchids have not lost their allure since the craze of the 19th century.

Further north, giant orchid art sculptures are shortly to grace a Canadian city.Three six-metre tall bronze and stainless steel orchids will be installed near an underpass. The artwork, costing $100,000, is by Irish artist Alex Pentek, who has also exhibited Hobart in Tasmania.

Post-apocalyptic specimen
Finally, orchids make a rather different appearance, thanks to the work of guitarist Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine and Audioslave. Morello has teamed up with Dark Horse Comics to bring Orchid, a post-apocalyptic story featuring a powerful fortresses away from dangerous mutated creatures and the scum of the lower class citizens. Orchid is the eponymous teenage prostitute who learns that she is more than the role society has imposed upon her.

In keeping with his musical heritage, each issue is to be promoted with a new song by Morello and his band.