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.