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 -