Tuesday, 25 October 2011

The orchids that time forgot

Part one of a history of orchids from the year dot to the dot.com 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