Thursday, 27 October 2011

A gruesome tale

WHEN orchids first became popular in Victorian days, one particular Dendrobium had a positively Gothic reputation and drew macabre crowds when on view. 

Although elegant in itself, it had a grisly story. In 1890 Frederick Sander ordered orchid hunter William Micholitz to New Guinea in search of a variety of Dendrobium phalaenopsis (then known as Den. schroderianum, now Den. bigibbum – and no, I’m not making this up).
After suffering many difficulties he ended up as a guest in a native village war dance. Not being one for things tribal, he got bored and wandered off, but stumbled across some ritual sacrifices. Revulsed, he ran off and perched in a tree, only to find said Dendrobium. He took large quantities for shipment to England, but en route, fire broke out on the ship and the precious cargo was lost. Ordered back to find more plants, Micholitz grudgingly returned and the following year once again found plants growing on bare limestone between a large number of human skulls and bones.

Ritual for the dead
It seems that the people ritually laid their dead in a light coffin, placed upon the rocks just above high tide, a situation which the Dendrobes appreciate.

After failing to bribe the natives with trinkets, he offered brass wire, which proved irresistible, and went on to strip the area of every single plant. The locals helped him to disturb the bones of their ancestors, but even helped him to stow the plunder. They had one condition: that he pack two of their favourite idols alongside. Once this had been agreed, they performed a war dance round the cases, and assisted in transporting them.

Skull and bones
Despite Micholitz’s promise not to send any bones or skulls with the shipment cargo, one plant attached to a skull arrived in England where it created quite a sensation when it was put up for auction.

Orchid maniac of the day Frederick Boyle recorded:

‘Every newspaper in the realm gave some sort of a report, and a multitude of my confreres were summoned to spin out a column, from such stores of ingenuity as they could find, upon a plant which grew on human skulls and travelled under charge of tutelary idols. The scene at 'Protheroe's' was a renewal of the good old time when every season brought its noble plant, and every plant brought out its noble price--in short, a sensation.’

The plants, still attached to the skulls, along with the idols were sold as one lot and purchased by the Hon. Walter Rothschild, in whose collection they remained for many years.

● Dance of Duk-duk, Bismarck Archipelago, from a watercolour by Joachim Graf Pfeil, 1899, wikimedia
● Dendrobium phalaenopsis, John E Hill, Cooktown orchids and bud, wikimedia
● Walter Rothschild (1868-1937), Frances E. Warr, ‘Manuscripts and Drawings in the Ornithology and Rothschild Libraries of The Natural History Museum’, 1997, wikimedia


Wednesday, 26 October 2011

The scent of death

Cuttings #1, October 2011
Orchidologists find themselves doing the oddest things.
Timotheüs van der Niet at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa was obliged to collect roadkill for his latest research into orchid mimicry, he reports.

The lurid-looking orchid Satyrium pumilum grows in sandy, moist conditions near small streams across the Cape, but it is something of an enigma. They flowers have no nectar – so to attract insects to pollinate their flowers they lure flies into its flowers by mimicking the smell of rotting flesh. Van de Niet wanted to know more and came up with a rather macabre plan. He would compare the scent exuded by the orchids with that of roadkill, in the form of ‘dassies’ or rock hyraxes, that resemble guineau pigs.

Van der Niet explained: ‘We examined the flies visiting the dead dassies, and compared them to the flies visiting the orchids.’ Curiously, they didn't report many flies visiting the flowers, but when they examined a carcass, they spotted clouds of flies carrying orchid pollen. However, they were mostly flesh-flies and mostly females. Subsequent studies showed that flesh-flies were better at finding such a food source.

He concluded that the orchid is quite picky: ‘Not only do they have to entice flies in, but they have to get flies of the right size into the right position to pick up the pollen. Scent plays a hugely important role in pulling in the flies, and even inside the flower different scents attract the flies into the right location to pick up the pollen. The combination of smell and sight is irresistible to some flies. The level of carrion mimicry is amazing; we even saw a female fly leave larvae in a flower because it thought it was carrion.’

Meanwhile, in New Zealand, University of Otago researchers have uncovered two orchid fossils some 20 million years old, which could herald a revolution in understanding of the the Miocene period,
claim paleobotanists.

In the UK, a study is under way to protect rare species such as the fen orchid and early marsh orchid on the coastline of Wales in danger of extinction because sand dunes are stabilising at Kenfig Burrows, in Bridgend county.

Meanwhile, schoolchildren have joined forces with National Trust rangers to help protect rare heathland in Dorset this autumn term by clearing gorse to improve the habitat for bog orchids. In Sussex, an ancient wood is to be revitalised by axing non-native conifers which create too much shade in Brede High Woods, to the detriment of species such as bird’s nest orchid. to ancient woodland.

In Malaysia, orchid-loving Prof Maziah Mahmood has come up with a new technique in plant tissue culture using bioreactors to produce exact copies of a plant. Whereas the traditional method of plant cloning has always been reliant on solid, jelly-like mediums, she has been using a bioreactor to produce up to 10 times that number, using a liquid medium made of natural ingredients such as banana extract and coconut juice.

Finally, if you think repotting a normal sized orchid is a giant nightmare, what if it weighs nearly 136 kilos and hangs over a three-foot deep pool? Brooklyn Botanic Gardens had to tackle a precarious giant tiger orchid (Grammatophyllum speciosum). See how they fared.

● Satyrium pumilum, Bernd Haynold, wikimedia ● Rock hyrax (Procavia capensis), Cliff, wikimedia ● Bird's-nest Orchid (Neottia nidus-avis),detail of a solitary plant caught (unusually) in a patch of sunlight in otherwise shady woodland, Ian Capper ● Grammatophyllum speciosum, a hand-retouched chromolithograph by Louis-Aristide-Léon Constans (fl. 1830s-1860s), from the second volume of Paxton's Flower Garden (1851-1852) by John Lindley and Joseph Paxton, wikimedia


Creatures of the night

Top 13 weird and wonderful orchids

MOST orchids are a treat to behold. For Halloween, here are a few tricky characters you mightn’t want to encounter in a darkened greenhouse on Mischief Night.

Orchids come in many forms, some beautiful and some, well, not. For sheer reptile ugliness, the Bulbophyllum putidum orchid has to take first place for its resemblance to a frog, complete with damp fleshiness. Urg.

To ward off the beasties, a simple British orchid fits the bill.

The commonly sighted Early Purple Orchid might look fresh and sweet, but it holds a nasty secret. Its scent is positively offensive scent, likened to that of a tomcat. Crushing the leaves releases the smell of garlic. Good to know?

Orchids that attract flies for pollination can smell terrible. One of the whiffiest orchids on the planet must be the Bulbophyllum phalaenopsis, with its aroma of rotten meat. But for the ‘Eeuw’ factor, the Corallorhiza striata has to take the (mouldy) biscuit. These characters grow in the bottom of forests and use a type of fungus to feed off decaying leaf matter.

An article on spooky orchids would not be complete without reference to the Ghost Orchid (Dendrophylax lindenii), which, hopefully like phantoms, are rare. Their creepy long, white fingers are shaped differently from most flowers, but they are also endangered and are now protected under international law from modern day orchid thieves.

Another creature of the night is the alarmingly named Dracula orchid, with its puckered, goblin-like face and a creepy hinged lip. But that’s not all. The sneaky devils have learned to mimic the smell and appearance of certain mushrooms to lure fruit flies into pollinating them.

Or what about the medusa orchid? The Bulbophyllum medusae comes complete with scary straggly hair suggestive of the mythological namesake. There’s even a contender from the world of science fiction. Miltassia Dark Star 'Darth Vader' orchid has a deliciously evil presence when in bloom.

For the most monstrous orchid of all, check out the Grammatophyllium speciosum, the heaviest of orchids in the world, weighing up to 2,000kg and capable of producing a staggering 10,000 flowers. A native of Singapore, it’s commonly known as known as Tiger orchid because of the markings on the flowers. Sadly, this dramatic creature is rare if not already extinct in the wild in Singapore.

It might surprise some to know that not a single orchid is recorded as being poisonous, although a handful cause allergic skin reactions, such as Cypripedium reginae. In Hawaii orchid blooms are used as a garnish for food and drinks, so watch out.

In keeping with Halloween, how could one forget the plethora of spider orchids, some scarier than others. Endemic to Australia, New Zealand and New Caladonia, the underground tubers were used by the Australian aborigines for food.

Staying Down Under, there’s a contender for a creepy troglodyte award. The Rhizanthella gardneri spends its entire life underground. With no above-ground parts, it doesn’t photosynthesise, but is saprophytic, meaning it feeds off another plant, and it is pollinated by termites. It has a Gollum-like fleshy quality that is truly gross.

Thinking about Gollum, what about insectivorous or even carnivorous orchids? Some fanatics believe there is just one, growing in the Tepui formations in southwestern Venezuela. Called Aracamunia liesneri, and collected in 1987, it has one or two peculiar tongue-shaped, glandular structures protruding from the base of each leaf, suggesting it may be ‘compatible with flypaper insect traps’. Odd, though. I couldn’t find a single picture …

There is no absolutely black orchid, although quite a variety of close contenders, from the Phalaenopsis Ever Spring Prince ‘Black Bird’, to Paphiopedilum Astro Boy (Makuli x rothschildianum), a rare lady slipper orchid but it is not a black orchid. If you’re into the dark side of the orchid world, check out this list.

Finally, my personal Halloween favourite is a ‘glow-in-the-dark’ variant, a genetically modified bioluminescent orchid developed by Professor Chia Tet Fatt. The prof transformed tissues from a Dendrobium genus, using the firefly luciferase gene using particle bombardment. Thus, biologically active DNA from the firefly gene was delivered into orchid tissues. Transformed cells were identified by their bioluminescence trait and propagated to generate transgenic plants. These glowing orchids produce constant light, visible to the human eye, for up to five hours at a time. The greenish-white light is emitted from the whole orchid, including roots, stem, leaves and petals. The intensity of light produced varies across the different parts, ranging from 5,000 to 30,000 photons per second. All this according to a Missouri Orchid Society newsletter. Click here to see the orchid glow!

This is creepy. That’s 13. And I wasn’t even counting.


2. Early Purple Orchid, Orchis mascula in woods near Tillington, West Sussex, England, 2007, by Charles W Drake
3. Bulbophyllum phalaenopsis, trophy-winning plant at 2005 NY International Orchid Show, Elena Gaillard
4. Corallorhiza striata, also known as hooded coralroot. This specimen was found in the dense cover of the High Sierra forests, Alan Vernon
5. Dendrophylax Ghost Orchid (Dendrophylax lindenii) by Mick Fournier, Pompano Beach, Florida, 2007
6. Illustration of Dracula chimaera from Florence H. Woolward: The Genus Masdevallia,
1896, Schweizerische Orchideenstiftung am Herbarium Jany Renz,
7. Bulbophyllum medusae, Erik Hunt, 2006
8. Grammatophyllum speciosum, a hand-retouched chromolithograph by Louis-Aristide-Léon Constans (fl. 1830s-1860s), from the second volume of Paxton's Flower Garden (1851-1852) by John Lindley and Joseph Paxton, wikimedia
9. Cypripedium reginae, Edwards's Botanical Register, volume 20, plate 1666
10. Spider orchid (Caladenia integra) in Western Australia, 2006, A. Buschinger
11. Rhizanthella gardneri, from Gutenberg version of Emily Pelloe: ‘West Australian Orchids’, p66, 1930, wikimedia
13. Glow in the dark: this is just mock-up, but you get the idea.

Tuesday, 25 October 2011

The orchids that time forgot

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

EVER wondered about the history of the orchid? How far back do you need to go?

Orchids may be the largest family of flowering plants with arguably some 28,000 species, but oddly enough, there is virtually no fossil record.

The era of dinosaurs, perhaps? In 2007, Harvard scientists found evidence of pollination in the remains of an ancient bee trapped in amber deep in the Dominican Republic. They fearlessly waded into Jurassic Park-like territory and compared genetic data from the fossilised Meliorchis caribea with modern-day plants and worked out that the first orchids bloomed about 84 million years ago*, far longer than botanists had ever imagined.

By constructing a ‘family tree’ of orchids, the scientists peered back into the mists of time and concluded that the most recent common ancestor of all the orchids we see today lived in the Late Cretaceous period, when the dinosaurs were beginning to dwindle.

Fascinating fossils
Moving forwards to 21 million years ago, orchids were apparently merrily blooming away in the southern hemisphere, when animal-man made his appearance.

Paleobotanists in New Zealand came upon a fossilised orchid, about 20 million years old, one of a treasure trove of flora and insects. Located in a ‘maar’, a round, shallow volcanic crater in Otago-Southland (leading to inevitable ‘life on maars’ puns)*. They reckon this virtual orchid, which resembles a stark starfish on a pale rock, will help them to revolutionise the understanding of the origins of New Zealand’s modern flora and fauna in the so-called Miocene period. They are building on earlier finds from 2007 which included two other fossil orchids, which are the only known orchid fossil specimens throughout the world.

Things go dark for a while, until the next appearance of orchids in the fifth century BC with none other than the philosopher Confucius (551- 479BC) himself, a bit of a buff, describing orchids as ‘the association with a superior person is like entering a hall of orchids’.

Incidentally, the original continues: ‘The association with an inferior person is like entering a salted fish shop; after a long while one no longer smells the stench, and comes to resemble them.’

Confucius, he one pithy dude.

Academics agree that species of Dendrobium and Bletilla hyacinthine popped up in the ‘Materia Medica’ of the mythical emperor, Shen Nung (28th Century BC) of China.

Then sightings moved west as Theophrastus (370-285BC) took to the field. He, as I’m sure you can recall, was a Greek philosopher and scientist and pupil of Plato and Aristotle, and mentioned orchids in his ‘Essay on Plants’ published around 300BC.

Rude tuber
It is Theophrastus who is to blame for the orchid’s racy reputation, for the term ‘orchid’ means testicle, which the smutty-minded chap must have thought was a hugely amusing reference when he sniggered at the paired underground tubers of the European terrestrial orchid.

By the first century AD, Dioscorides (circa 40-90 AD), a Greek herbalist of Asia Minor, adopted this name for his own ‘De Materia Medica’, where 500 species of medicinal plants were described, two of which were orchids.

Dioscorides advocated the ‘Doctrine of Signature’, prevalent in Europe at the time, that a plant will resemble its medicinal purpose in some shape. Just as the orchid tubers resemble the testicle, to use a phrase my English teacher drummed into us, so did the orchid plant confer mysterious powers of fertility in man.

A picture may speak a thousand words, but for the sake of decorum, I shall refrain from illustration at this juncture and leave the analogy to your imagination. Enjoy a 13th-century Arabic copy instead.

See what happened to orchids in the dark ages in

Part two: Aphrodisiacs and orchidology

● Confucius, from ‘Illustrations de Description géographique, historique, chronologique, politique et physique de l'Empire de la Chine’, M. Humblot, 1736, p25, Bibliothèque nationale de France hotomicrograph of holotype female of Oligochlora semirugosa (KU-DR-21). Dorsolateral oblique aspect of holotype.
● Two new halictine Bees in Miocene Amber from the Dominican Republic (Hymenoptera, Halticidae). ZooKeys 29: 1–12. doi:10.3897/zookeys.29.257, Michael S. Engel, (2009)
● Dendrobasaurus, feasting on a cretaceous spray of blooms
Bletia hyacinthine, Claire H. from New York City, USA, wikimedia
● De Materia Medica, by Pedanius Dioscorides, folio from Arabic translation calligrapher Abdallah ibn al-Fadl, outdoor scene with mad dog biting man, 1224, opaque watercolor, ink and gold on paper, Freer Gallery of Art


Monday, 24 October 2011

Welcome to Orchidmania

When I first starting researching material for a 19th-century adventure story, I was soon hooked on the weird and wonderful history of orchids.

I bought my first orchid to sit on the windowsill by my laptop, unaware of the slippery slope upon which I had embarked. 

It was a modest little Phalaenopsis, and the first of more than a dozen specimens that bloom gloriously in turn. I always did dislike the funereal quality of cut flowers, so orchids were the bees knees.

If you’re reading this, you’re an enthusiast, too. We’re in good company. Queen Victoria. Charles Darwin. A former head of the CIA, James Angleton. The latter was passionate about Dendrobia, Phalaenopsis, Cymbidium and other tribes of orchids, especially their ‘deceptive qualities’. It’s more than a little chilling to note that this secretive man appreciated the darker side of orchids and veered away from the ‘survival of the fittest’ theory, opining that it was only the most deceptive orchid that had survived. When it comes to breeding, most orchids rely on their mastery of misrepresentation to confuse insects, having no actual food on offer. Orchids. Dark, dangerous, deadly.

The more I read about the flowers, their almost Gothic history, their medicinal uses, the crazy lengths collectors would go to acquire them, their weird relations with insects, more fascinated I became. I began to collect the anecdotes, the trivia, the latest news stories, the fantastic tales of orchid-hunters from the days of the Empire ... anything and everything.

I have so much stuff, it seemed time to share it all with orchid fans. I hope you find it fascinating. And let me know what you think!



● Pictured is Phalaenopsis schilleriana from ‘Select Orchidaceous Plants’ by Robert Warner (1814-1896) et al (1862)
● Dark and dangerous: black orchids are highly desirable. Acrylic painting on canvas by Lauren Deeth-Kelt