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.


Friday, 4 November 2011

Butterflies are back

Cuttings#2, November 2011
Orchid Island off the coast of Taiwan and youll hear that it has successfully rehabilitated its native species of butterfly orchid, Phalaenopsis Aphrodite.

Under a government initiative, a team has selected and bred more than 1,200 seedlings of the orchid, and released them back into the wild.

The species had become nearly extinct after decades of tourism and human development on the small island.

Meanwhile, in Northern Sumatra, scientists say they have found almost 200 new species of orchids in the Eden Park tourist forest in Sionggang village in Toba Samosir.

Botanists and orchid experts Ria Telambanua and Michele Sirait have been exploring the area for years and told local press they had identified the species of forest orchids after almost four years of research by deciphering morphological differences using orchid catalogues and by consulting with experts.

They plan to launch a book documenting their findings soon. A portion of the profits would be donated to orchid experts.

Survival instinct
Down under, plant species are showing a burst of new life after one of the country’s worst natural disasters.

While the Black Saturday fires caused havoc in 2009, the flames have become a lifeline for the nationally endangered Eastern Spider Orchid, which has flowered at 10 times its normal rate in Wilsons Promontory National Park.

Four orchid species – the Lizard, Red Beaks, Hare and Austral Leek –that only bloom in Victoria when their habitat is burnt have flowered ‘spectacularly’ after the fires, Dr Duncan said.

Spider orchids made the headlines last year, too, in quite a different way. Plants picked by Victorian collectors up to 150 years ago turned into a valuable new source of data for ecologists trying to understand how climate change will affect the timing of flowering plants.

Scientists have used the labelled and dated specimens of the early spider orchid, Ophrys sphegodes, to examine the affect of spring temperatures on flowering. The flowers were collected between 1848 and 1958.

The results, published in Journal of Ecology found that for a 1.8 degree Fahrenheit increase in the spring temperature, the orchid flowered six days earlier. The results are nearly identical to field observations collected between 1975 and 2006.

Who knows what untapped information is locked within museums and herbaria?

From spider orchids to orchid spiders. A colony of mysterious spiders normally found lurking deep underground in caves is being re-housed after squatting in a redundant orchid house owned by the National Trust. A decade ago, archaeologists from the University of Bradford carried out a survey of Chapel Fell cave. At the end of each day they took some of their equipment to the nearby old orchid house to store overnight.
Unbeknown to the archaeologists they had brought with them enough cave spiders to start a new colony in the small, dark building above ground level.
The colony of spiders has been living on the National Trust's Malham Tarn estate in the Yorkshire Dales less than a quarter of a mile (half a kilometre) from their natural home.

Now it’s time the cave spiders to be relocated, and the old orchid house, which sits along the Pennine way, is to converted into a resource for walkers and school visits. The spiders will be collected using an industrial ‘pooter’, a Heath Robinson contraption, consisting of a vacuum cleaner and old fish tank. Spiders will be sucked up the spout and deposited to safety.

Bond with bees
On the subject or insects, orchids need their bee pollinators more than the bees need them, according to a study that challenges the view of how plants and their insect pollinators evolve together.

The bond between specific bees and the orchid plants they visited has been well-documented by botanists and naturalists, including Charles Darwin. Biologists discovered that male bees needed the specific perfume compounds produced by the flowering plants in order to mate with female bees.

In the University of California study, researchers screened more than 7,000 individual male bees and sequenced DNA from 140 orchid pollinaria to build up an evolutionary history of both bees and orchids, and establish which species of bee pollinates what species of orchid. To their surprise, the scientists found that the bees evolved at least 12 million years earlier than their orchid counterparts.

In Germany, scientists have discovered the trick the orchid Epipactis veratrifolia uses to attract pollinating hoverflies. The plant’s flower practises a special mimicry, producing three chemical substances that are usually emitted as alarm pheromones among aphids.

Hoverfly females smell the alarm and lay their eggs close to the aphids, which are the perfect food for their hatching larvae. By mimicking these alarm pheromones, the orchid takes advantage of the hoverfly females, deceiving them into pollinating its flower. The flies even lay their eggs on the flower. However, the hatching larvae are doomed, because no aphids are available in the orchid flower.

Finally, a blend of coffee sold in coffee-houses around Britain has a newly-discovered orchid named after it.

The coffee is Puro, a Fairtrade blend by the Miko group, and the Teagueia Puroana orchid was discovered in a rainforest which has been bought for conservation purposes by the coffee group.

World-renowned botanist Dr Lou Jost discovered the new orchid while trekking in the Cerro Candelaria reserve in central Ecuador. The orchid is endemic to the high mountains of the upper Rio Pastaza watershed.

The Miko project has also turned up eleven more previously-unknown orchids, and a formerly-undiscovered frog.


Phalaenopsis Aphrodite, Ophrys sphegodes, cave spider, bee on flower and Epipactis veratrifolia, Wikimedia

Tuesday, 1 November 2011

Explore Flora’s world

Victorian intrigue

Check out a fascinating new blog for fans of Victoriana called
The Lost Orchid. Launched on the first of November, it invites readers to jump right into the Victorian world of the late 1880s.

The book is a Gothic-inspired tale of intrigue and adventure set in 1885, when orchid mania was its peak.

Affluent members of society would bid feverishly for the latest exotic blooms, plucked from the remotest parts of the empire by intrepid, and often ruthless, plant hunters.

Browse the blog to find out more about:

* the secret life of plant hunters
* the characters in the book
* real-life settings
* the true story of orchid mania
* the book – read an extract
* the plight of ‘fallen women’
* events of 1885
* true stories of ‘lost orchids’
* the author
* the Great Game
* mad botany other horticultural crazes, and two further adventures featuring Flora and co.

Just click on the series of thumbnail images that you'll find to the left of the home page. Each one whizzes you to a series of articles, some still in an embryonic state as yet, so you can immerse yourself in Flora’s world.