Saturday, 29 December 2012

Honour for orchid educator

Simon Pugh’s work in 'Education and the Orchid Project' has been recognised with an MBE in the 2013 New Year’s Honours List.

Mr Pugh said: ‘This is recognition for my fantastic team of students at Writhlington who have achieved so much over the last twenty years and for all those who have supported our work both in the UK and abroad.’

The West Country school WSBE orchids project involves propagating fragile orchids in a bid to save plants in the wild, and produce vital income for communities around the world.

The Writhlington School orchid project in Radstock is a fantastic example of education enabling pupils to learn laboratory skills and discover other cultures, along with business skills.

The Indian Himalayan state of Sikkim, Laos in South East Asia, South Africa, and now Rwanda, are just some of the countries to benefit from lessons learned in the school's laboratory and greenhouses.

The school recently hosted an international gathering of orchid experts when the British Orchid Congress held its triennial meeting and show at the school.

Wish there’d been a teacher of this calibre in my school.

Wednesday, 26 December 2012

Orchids or triffids?

'The buying of orchids always has in it a certain speculative flavour.' Who wrote this? HG Wells.

Not showing off, well maybe a little, my aunt used to work for a Professor Waddington, who was in turn a students of Wells.

Ghostly stories sit well this time of year, and I share with you a little known and deliciously dark tale about orchids.

Indulge yourself with this micro-Gothic tale for the New Year. Read it here. Meanwhile, a small cutting to tempt your tastebuds:

THE FLOWERING OF THE STRANGE ORCHID by H.G.Wells (originally published in the Pall Mall Budget of 2 August, 1894).

'Wedderburn had lost a good deal of blood, but beyond that he had suffered no very great injury. They gave him brandy mixed with some pink extract of meat, and carried him upstairs to bed. His housekeeper told her incredible story in fragments to Dr. Haddon.

"Come to the orchid-house and see," she said. The cold outer air was blowing in through the open door, and the sickly perfume was almost dispelled. Most of the torn aerial rootlets lay already withered amidst a number of dark stains upon the bricks. The stem of the inflorescence was broken by the fall of the plant, and the flowers were growing limp and brown at the edges of the petals. The doctor stooped towards it, then saw that one of the aerial rootlets still stirred feebly, and hesitated.

The next morning the strange orchid still lay there, black now and putrescent. The door banged intermittently in the morning breeze, and all the array of Wedderburn's orchids was shrivelled and prostrate. But Wedderburn himself was bright and garrulous upstairs in the glory of his strange adventure.'

Friday, 21 December 2012

Burning issue

Contrary to expectation, rare orchids are blooming near Bonegilla in Northeast Victoria – all because they are regularly scorched, it seems.

According to Australian local press, experts say burns for 20 years have led to a tenfold increase in the native orchids and authorities are using the lessons from these burns to improve other native grasslands. The burns replicate what happened before Europeans arrived.
 Sustainability and Environment Department and Parks Victoria firefighters lit five hectacres of reserve not far off the Murray Valley Highway. Firefighters doused still-smouldering trees, reducing the landscape to a smouldering mass.

Senior flora and fauna officer with DSE, Glen Johnson, said the burn was perfect for the native plants. ‘This area has been intensively managed for more than 20 years and is now seen as a barometer of how to manage other areas,’ he said. ‘We have seen the orchids that once were as few as 10 now number in the hundreds.

‘The orchids are adapted to fire, the burn helping to reinvigorate and rejuvenate the less competitive elements by reducing the biomass and creating space between the tussocks of kangaroo grass.’ Get a glimpse of the local flora on this virtual trail.

Pictured: Spotted Sun Orchid, a native to Australia

Thursday, 20 December 2012

Flowers in the press

Quirky orchid fact for you. A certain Bolivian orchid is named after Mikhail Gorbachev, former leader of the Soviet Union. It’s called the Maxillaria gorbatschowii.

All new species need names, and recently, desperate scientists are going for celebrities – no doubt to guarantee a headline.

Apparently, there’s a jellyfish named after musician Frank Zappa and an ape named after comedian John Cleese. One horsefly is named after singer Beyonce – just hazard a guess why.

According to a recent article, the namesakes don't have to be asked for permission, but spider researcher Peter Jaeger (who has personally named spiders after David Bowie and a half dozen other prominent people) says it’s not just a gimmick. ‘It's about sending a message that the species is endangered,’ said Jaeger. ‘I find it good when science comes down from its ivory tower.’

Private people can also be immortalised, but there's a price. In exchange for about 2,600 euros ($3,400), the association Biopat offers the right to name an organism. Orchids are the most popular, along with butterflies, frogs and bugs. The money goes towards environmental projects in the organism's land of origin or for the good of science. To date, over 120 species have been sponsored.

Now, I for one think they deserve more publicity.

Wednesday, 5 December 2012

Out soon ...

If you’re an orchid addict, you'll soon be able to download THE LOST ORCHID from Bluewood publishing. It's a Gothic-inspired tale of horticultural skulduggery set during the heady years of ‘Orchidmania’, when Victorians went mad for the latest, rarest and most exotic flowers of the day.

It is the first in a three-part Gothic-inspired series set in the 1880s, featuring Flora McPhairson, a young florist and her roller-coaster relationship with enigmatic journalist William Carter, whom she encounters after seeking refuge from social disgrace with her uncle, a veteran plant-collector and nursery owner.

It deals with deliciously dark, roiling Gothic themes of loss and rejection, the plight of ‘fallen women’ and obsession against the backdrop of Victorian hypocrisy and repression. It is planned as the first in a romantic trilogy:


If you don’t like blurbs, ignore the next three paragraphs. Or, in the modern parlance, spoiler alert!

Early spring 1885 ...

Florist Flora McPhairson elopes, but is jilted and nearly dies of pneumonia. Her reputation in shreds, she is obliged to stay with her bachelor uncle, veteran plant collector John McPhairson. She works at his plant nursery where he hybridises orchids, much prized by high society.

Flora then disturbs some vandals and prevents further damage. After scandal-mongering at a major auction, her uncle confesses that he fears he is the target of a dirty tricks campaign. There are plenty of suspects, including a rival orchid house, a thwarted suitor of Flora’s and even religious zealots who believe her uncle’s unique ability to create hybrids is an abomination.

Disaster also strikes abroad as their own plant collector falls victim to foul sabotage. Flora is obliged to seek the help of enigmatic journalist, William Carter, to avert ruin.

Events take a sinister turn, and her uncle vanishes. Carter is a useful ally, and their mutual distrust turns into respect. Pushed to the edge of their endurance, they find help in the most unlikely of places, but it seems that even Carter is not to be trusted, and things become strained. As they fight unseen forces, she discovers that there is much more at stake than her own livelihood – the reputation of the British Empire is at risk, and they both have to overcome their personal demons and work together to expose the plot.
Botanical crazes
The stories are set against the real-life backdrop of the botanical crazes of the day. Much of Victorian society was a veneer, beneath which lurked darkness and corruption. Horticulture was no exception. Behind the image of the genteel greenhouses, fortunes were lost and won as rival plant dealers plied their trade, many indulging in shady practices to ensure their success. Meanwhile, dealers sent their agents, often using an alias, to scour the most remote – and dangerous – parts of the world where they would go to almost any lengths to collect hunt down new species.

Orchid Wars explores the phenomenon of orchidmania, a documented obsession for ever more exotic blooms. Most prized were so-called ‘lost orchids’, rare plants which had been identified earlier, but subsequently lost. Huge rewards were posted for their rediscovery.

In the story, Flora’s uncle has shunned the ruthless world of orchid hunters and is developing a method to produce viable hybrids to satisfy the market – and save many species from extinction. This is based on John Dominy, pictured, an authentic hybridiser who had a monopoly on the process until 1885.

Flora and Carter are caught up in this cut-throat world, and are soon drawn into a darker political arena, when power-hungry nations were secretly sowing the seeds of espionage as world conflict loomed. 

Tournament of shadows
For almost a hundred years, the British Empire and the Russia of the Tsars, the two most powerful nations on earth, engaged in a secret war in the remote lands of Central Asia. It was known as the ‘The Great Game’. 

The phrase was ascribed to Arthur Conolly (1807-1842), an intelligence officer of the British East India Company's Sixth Bengal Light Cavalry, and brought into common parlance via Rudyard Kipling's book Kim. Both sides used personnel with a plausible reason for being there, such as surveyors, geographers, collectors, army officers. These secret agents often risked their lives to gather information on enemy forces, discover secret routes across difficult terrain and cultivate useful native allies.

At the outset, the two rivals lay nearly 2,000 miles apart. By the end of the Турниры теней, or the Tournament of Shadows, as the Russians called it, some Russian outposts were within 20 miles of India. Some might argue The Great Game has never ceased.


Cattleya Warneri: received by Low and Co. from Binot who collected plants from Espirito Santos and Minas Gerias. A certain Mr R. Warner of Broomfield is reported as having over 600 cattleyas in bloom at one time was the first to flower this species.
John Dominy (1816-1891), head gardener, plant grower at the nurseries of James and James Veitch in Exeter, 1834-1841, and Chelsea, 1846-80. He grew the first known artificially produced orchid hybrid, Calanthe dominii, in 1856
Political cartoon depicting the Afghan Emir Sher Ali with his ‘friends’ the Russian Bear and British Lion (1878), published on 30 November, 1878


Wildness in the Wolds

Sad to say, thousands of orchids in a roadside area of North Yorkshire have been destroyed by workmen digging up the ground to lay pipes.

The Yorkshire Wolds location, which is never publicised to deter rare flower hunters, has been described as a ‘sea of pink’ in the summer, thanks to the blooming of orchids. But last week, builders dug a 140-foot trench right through the site, threatening the growing conditions of the common marsh orchids, pyramidal, and common spotted orchids, which need hard chalky ground.

Wildlife artist Robert E Fuller, is heart-broken, describing the sad scene as a ‘squashy mess’, according to local press.

Of course, it’s important to keep such places secret, but surely the council must have known?


Tuesday, 27 November 2012

Focus on hybrids

Your favourite orchid blooms. Huzzah.

Try to take a photograph? It’s hard.

Some chaps are better. Justin Guariglia, an award-winning photographer and contributing editor of National Geographic Traveller is an expert in high-resolution shots and now he’s focusing on orchids.

His latest project is exploring hybridisation and the synthetic world through hybrid orchids. Has he read THE LOST ORCHID?

DBKU Orchid Garden, managed by Orchidwoods Co, the company started by Au Yong’s father, the late ‘Orchid King’ Datuk Au Yong Nang Yip, in 1969 is all about orchid breeding. There are 75,000 plants comprising 82 genera in the 15.4 acre wide park.

Read the article about his fancy cameras and such. Unbelievably, he’ll take 1,000 shots before he moves on to the next orchid selected by Au Yong who, between him and his late father, have created a couple of hundred unique hybrids from orchids collected around the world.

‘While there are 25-30,000 species of wild orchids, there may be a quarter million or more hybrids – and that blew my mind, because it means over 100 years, people have been breeding orchids,’ he said when asked why he chose to feature hybrid orchids and not jungle or wild orchids.

He takes the photography to a different abstract level. Each flower is held up to the camera and photographed to enhance their symmetry and perfection. The editing process may take up to a year and once he’s made his selection, each flower will receive up to 100 hours of retouching.

In his words: ‘Whether you love your work or not, you will remember. Whether you recognise the leaves or the veins of the leaves, love is being able to recognise one leaf from another.’

Wednesday, 21 November 2012

Mii, mii, mii

Amazing. The world’s first blue moth orchid.

Masahiro Mii, a professor at the Graduate School of Horticulture, claims this Phalaenopsis, or moth orchid, is unique. It usually blooms in white, red or yellow. Cross-breeding has created hybrids, but the flower does not have a gene to create blue pigment in the petals. Until Mii. This remarkable chap and his research team extracted a gene from the Commelina communis, or Asiatic dayflower, which has blue petals, and inserted it into a cell of the Phalaenopsis. The genetically engineered plant produced a blue flower after four years of cultivation.

Thursday, 15 November 2012

Photo finish

Japanese botanists have created blooming hybrid orchids after they succeeded in crossbreeding a species that photosynthesises with another that does not, according to the press.

In 2006, the team artificially crossbred Cymbidium ensifolium (pictured right) which does photosynthesise, and Cymbidium macrorhizon (pictured left), which does not. They grew the seeds in glass bottles and guessing that the hybrids will photosynthesise, although the results are not yet available.

This autumn, it produced large flowers, three to four cms wide, with light yellow-green petals with red-purple dots.

This is the first time two fundamentally different nutritional regimes have merged into one, claimed Tomohisa Yukawa, a botanist at the museum's Tsukuba Botanical Garden in Ibaraki Prefecture.

If you recall your school biology, most plants convert the energy from the sun into chemical energy to generate nourishment – this is photosynthesis. But some orchid variants and some vascular plant species have ceased this process. Cymbidium macrorhizon, found in Japan and Southeast Asia, has no leaves and is parasitic to russulae and other fungi.

To see the final result, click here.

Sunday, 11 November 2012

Orchidmania - Roman-style

Orchid fever is not restricted to the Victorians.

The Romans were crazy about orchids as well. A study of ancient Italian artifacts has predated the earliest documented appearance of orchids in Western art from Renaissance to Roman times.

Researchers claim the orchid’s popularity in public art appeared to fade with the arrival of Christianity, possibly because of its sexual association. Orchid fanciers have linked the petals and pseudo-bulbs to male and female sexual organs. Orchis is Greek for testicles, as everyone knows.

Botanist Giulia Caneva of the University of Rome (Roma Tre) assembled a database of Italian artifacts, including paintings, textiles, and stone carvings of subjects including vegetation. Her team then set about identifying the real plants the artists had copied.

The portrayal of Italian orchids – about 100 species – appeared much earlier than expected. Academics had observed the flowers in paintings from the 1400s, Caneva and her students discovered that stone carvers were reproducing orchids as early as 46 BCE. At this time, Julius Caesar had instigated the Temple of Venus Genetrix in Rome, and at least three orchids appear among many other plants on the Ara Pacis, a huge stone altar erected by the emperor Augustus in 9 BCE. Flowers emphasised the altar’s theme of civic rebirth, fertility, and prosperity following a long period of conflict, Caneva says.

However, orchids vanished from public art as Christianity held sway the third and fourth centuries, as the pagan and sexual symbols were eliminated. With the arrival of the Renaissance, however, orchids reappeared, as a symbol of beauty and elegance. Kristin Nicole Edrington is a jewelry specialist in Alexandria, Virginia, and examined the rise of orchid imagery in high-end jewelry made in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

According to the article, the discovery that Roman artists also favoured the flower confirms that ‘orchidmania is nothing new, and was such a big thing even back in the day’.

Saturday, 20 October 2012

Good luck, bad vibe?

A newly-found orchid species in Vietnam is making billionaires crazy, lusting for the Dendrobium farinatum, the new species believed to bring good luck to the owners. It was found in the Khanh Hoa eco-region in the central region of Vietnam. Truong Quang Tam from the Tropical Biology Institute confirmed that the orchid species is indigenous to Vietnam alone. According to Dr Nguyen Cong Thoai, a specialist in genetics, the orchid species was first mentioned in a journal published in Germany in 2004. In an article, H. Schildhauer and W.Schraut wrote that the orchids were sourced from Vietnam, which were then imported to Germany with commercial purpose. The article said that it was still unclear about the origin of the orchids, but it is believed to be found in Lai Chau province in the northwest of Vietnam.

The orchids grow in the areas 800-900m higher than the sea water level. Scientists have officially recorded its presence at the Hon Ba Sanctuary in the central province of Khanh Hoa, 1200-1500m higher than sea level. This is for the first time the
orchids have been recognised formally in the natural environment in Vietnam. The collected orchid samples bloomed in July. Researchers are now carrying out surveys on the location and eco-region. Their findings could help solve how to protect and develop the species. There have been rumours that the orchids can bring good luck and help the owners overcome misfortune. Billionaires in HCM City have been hunting for the orchids throughout the country, and are happy to splurge their cash. Some of them have even paid a deposit to traders to ensure that they would get the orchids one day.

Elsewhere, folk are claiming the orchids can treat diseases – and that tea from the dried orchid petals are rejuvenating. Sounds rather sinister to me.


Raring to go

Metallic sun orchids. What a name to conjure with. They are rare, with only a thousand or so left in the world, tucked away in Victoria and South Australia.

According to the ABC, the Wimmera Catchment Management Authority is leading an effort to revive the endangered species’ population. Researchers have been cultivating the orchid in lab conditions and now volunteers are planting around 3,000 of them throughout west and south-west Victoria.

Experts did their homework, checking out the mycorrhizal fungi along with local temperature which were replicated indoors. Once in flower, the knee-high metallic sun orchids sport large, cup-shaped, brightly-coloured flowers in reds, blues, yellows and greens, all with a metallic glint.

Meanwhile, ‘beautiful orchids with beastly names’ are blooming in Queensland’s at Vale Park on the River Torrens where another team of fans working with botanist Heather Whiting has established the Vale Park Our Patch to bring native orchids and lilies back to the plains.

Farming and urban development reduced the variety of orchids from the original 50 or 100 different species to a single orchid, says a report.

Now the group has reintroduced 20 varieties and created a wildflower walk, featuring many species including the rare king spider orchid which attracts a male wasp by taking on the guise of his hairy, wingless female. Donkey orchids, apparently, pretend to be bush peas.

Caption: Spider Orchid (Caladenia integra) in Western Australia.

Friday, 5 October 2012

Budding interest

Let's be blunt. In the past, only old people liked orchids. Times have changed. A West Country teacher, no doubt bitten by the orchidmania bug, has inspired his young pupils to achieve great things.

Check out a genuinely inspirational article on how orchids and the next generation can change the world.

The Writhlington School orchid project in Radstock is a delightful example, not just about botany, but about encouraging pupils to think globally. Thanks to an orchid project developed by teacher Simon Pugh-Jones, the school has links to the Indian Himalayan state of Sikkim, Laos in South East Asia, South Africa and Rwanda.

Better still, the school is to host to an international gathering of orchid experts at British Orchid Congress at the school later this month. Impressive.


Saturday, 29 September 2012

Story of survival

Check out a heartwarming tale of how orchids, despite their fragile reputation, have come back to life in New Orleans after Katrina. Thanks to  volunteer Richard Bergeron and a gang of dedicated orchid maniacs, the orchid collection has been reborn, growing from a bare handful to a thriving conservatory exhibit of more than 100 specimens – with hundreds more awaiting their moment in the spotlight.

Their mission is to display the plants in a way that mimics their natural environment. No more tables stacked with blooming orchids in clay pots. According to local press, the Rain Forest exhibit features ‘Vanda orchids suspended from tree limbs, their bare roots cascading down as they would from the tree tops in their native environments. Phalaenopsis grow from the sides of fig branches, extending out horizontally because they grow that way in nature in order to avoid having water collect in their crowns’.

Meanwhile, smaller terrestrial orchids cling closer to the ground, shaded by leaves, while a vanilla orchid wraps itself around the trunk of a tree.

Astonishingly, they now have more than four times the number of orchids than they did before Hurricane Katrina struck.


Friday, 14 September 2012

A delicate breed

Orchids are always at the whim of climate. I came across a couple of intriguing articles from half a a century ago, where the delicate orchid seem to have been regarded as a yardstick of pollution.

According to the Telegraph-Herald of November 29, 1948, ‘the “cheerful open fire” which Britons worship is wilting both the nation’s housewives and its choice orchids, the National Smoke Abatement Society reports. The society says, for instance, that the smoking chimneys of Manchester make housewives toil an hour longer over their tubs on every wash day than do the wives at nearby Harrogate, the spa of northern England.

‘One of last winter’s smogs made all the orchids and orchid buds in famed Kew Gardens drop off withing twenty-four hourse. The society, long time campaigner for a smoke abatement plant like that used in St Louis, Mo., estimed smoke and smog damage in Britain costs at least $400,000,000 a year.’

The second was from in the Oxnard Press-Courier of September 10, 1956, highlighting orchid damage … again from smog.

Under a page four lead entitled ‘Nixon: controversial figure called “young man in hurry”’ and under a small headline ‘Smog injures orchid fields in bay area’, was this little gem:

‘Berkeley, Calif. Commercial orchid growers in the San Francisco Bay area have to throw away hundreds of blossoms daily because of smog damage, according to University of California professor Robert D Raabe. The assistant professor of plant pathology told an all-day symposium on air pollution that the orchid damage illustrates the spread of plant injury. Althought plant damage seems to be increasing locally, he said, it has not yet spread to major crops. Dr Lester Breslow, chief of the State Department of Public Health’s Bureau of Chronic Diseases, said there has been no evidence of health damage from smog in the bay area yet. But, he added, nobody knows what long-range effects will be produced by cancer-causing substances in smog, because the matter has not yet received enough study.’

Caption: Nelson's Column during the Great Smog of 1952


Tuesday, 28 August 2012

Wildlife trophies

Orchids are still apparently ‘rampantly’ smuggled across international borders in large numbers, so much so that many are on the verge of extinction. To counter this plague from such places as the fabulous misty valleys of Munnar (right), an orchid house was set up in Mizoram to preserve 87 species of orchids found in the State’s jungles and put a stop to their plunder.

So far, an amazing 54 species have been preserved, which makes happy reading for the orchid fan.

Landslides, road-making and other anthropological interventions have contributed to the problem, says Dr. D. Burman, principal scientist of the outfit, according to The Hindu Times, which has a lovely thumbnail history of their appeal and perceived medicinal qualities.

Orchidmania is truly global.


Left: Phalaenopsis tetraspis (1895), from 'A Century of Indian Orchids', plate 5, Joseph Dalton Hooker (1817—1911)

Sunday, 12 August 2012

Thank you kindly

I knew I liked Canadians. Just having a little Sunday afternoon browse and I found a mensh of The Lost Orchid (formerly Orchid Wars) in a recent Canadian Orchid Congress newsletter.

Much obliged.


Saturday, 11 August 2012

Boffins on Baffin

I love Canadians. Their quirky humour, their TV, the scenery.

While trawling for all things orchidy, I came across this little gem of bonkerosity that sums it all up.

Four botanists from Ottawa traversed 60 km of Baffin Island by canoe looking for plants no-one has ever studied. As they travelled, with shotguns on their backs to deter pushy polar bears, the Canadian Museum of Nature team found unusual ferns, Arctic versions of dandelions and … Arctic orchids.

With such a gigantic land mass, Canada’s Arctic has yet to be thoroughly explored by botanists. According to the Ottawa Citizen, they zipped through rapids in canoes laden with science gear and found ‘carpets’ of bright flowers, scarcely any weeds, and many plants that science has never identified.

One of their finds was the northern bog orchid. Small, innocuous and green, it’s found in dense patches all over the tundra. The article has a lovely photo of the orchid being preserved. (The photo above is a Tall White Northern Bog Orchid, or Platanthera dilatata (Pursh) Lindl, which probably has nothing to do with the finds on Baffin, but it's jolly elegant all the same and worth a look.)

The best bit of the article confirms my admiration for all things Canadian. ‘Other orchids were so easy to miss that they made up a game: Spot an orchid, win a piece of cake.’

Friday, 3 August 2012

Waxing lyrical on wild Irish orchids

‘Orchids are the mysterious aristocrats of the summer meadow: they lack the simple, common innocence of other wild flowers, such as daisies or buttercups. They might smell sublime – bewitching scents of vanilla, cinnamon, honey – or, equally, they might carry the stench of rotting flesh.’

So goes the intro of a delightful online piece from the Irish Times on wild Irish orchids. Yes, there are some. And they are astonishingly beautiful.

Read how this has been a great year for wild Irish orchids, including common spotted orchids as seen in County Down by naturalist Dr Rory Mellon, who works for the Northern Ireland Environment Agency.

Mellon thinks that this year’s ‘great smattering of orchids’ is down to the mild winter and the short but warm spring.

He waxes lyrical on how slow orchids are to flower, citing the twayblade orchid that take up to 15 years to bloom.

Ireland has 30 native species, and the Western Marsh Orchid is unique to the island, along with the rare green-winged orchid and the frog orchid.

Mellon also marks the strange, symbiotic relationship orchids have with soil fungus. The fungus feeds the orchid seed, providing it with essential nutrients, and later on, the fungus feeds off sugars in the root tips of the plants. Fine if the soil is undisturbed, but disastrous if the area is ploughed or excavated.

Find out more from the Irish Orchid Society and its charming website.

Pictures: Western Marsh orchid, green-winged orchid, frog orchid and twayblade orchid, courtesy Wikimedia

Friday, 27 July 2012

Vanilla surprise

A Bodmin orchid spotter has discovered a rare specimen that has been in decline for more than a century.

The greater butterfly orchid has greenish white-coloured flowers and a vanilla scent that becomes more perfumed at night to attract moths. It was spotted around Bodmin Beacon.

Cornwall Council is delighted and has said it would work to ensure the flower would thrive, according to the press.

In recent years, conservation has been carried out by Bodmin Town and Cornwall Council, who manage the site together.

While so many of Britain's orchids are threatened, it seems good land management practices are critical to reversing this trend.

Wildlife fans will be pleased to note that other rare species in the area include snipe and climbing corydalis.


Friday, 20 July 2012

Fine weather for … orchids

Despite the monsoons, the bee orchid is thriving in the UK.

Indeed, many of the nation’s rarest wild flowers are relishing the rain, according to The Guardian, coming after a mild winter and dry spring.

Meanwhile, the rare Red helleborine, Cephalanthera rubra, has bloomed in Cotswold woodland. It is typically found in Europe, although classed as ‘vulnerable.

It is only seen on three sites in southern England, and was once on the verge of extinction. Seven years ago there were only three plants at the National Trust site in the Cotswolds. Thanks to conservation, there are some 30 plants at the site.

Its appearance is something of a mystery as as the particular bee that normally pollinates it in Europe is not found in the UK.

The distribution of many of such orchids is changing fast and records of some of its stranger forms are needed. The National History Museum is asking for information from volunteers. Let scientists know when you have seen any via the museum's ID forums.

Meanwhile, other plants to thrive this summer are the small restharrow, distinctive for its pink and white flowers, and nitgrass.


Rare orchid stolen

One of the UK’s rarest plants decided to take root in the middle of one of Europe’s largest roundabouts near Cardiff.

The species was so at home that two crimson and purple rhodochila variants of the normally pink common spotted orchid (pictured) blossomed at the Coryton interchange.

Then, to the surprise of members of Cardiff Naturalists Society a few years ago, two crimson and purple rhodochila variants of the normally pink common spotted orchid blossomed at the Coryton interchange – and were thought to be the first examples of the orchid ever to take root in Wales. But now it seems the stunning plants have been stolen.

Used only to seeing the hybrid in English counties such as Wiltshire and Kent, people drove from as far afield as Somerset to visit the surprisingly rich nature reserve, also home to rare insects.

On July 1, an experienced botanist, reported ‘the best rhodochila variant I have ever seen’. The hyper chronic form of the common spotted orchid with its excess of pigment and colour in a solid blotch of beautiful crimson spikes is apparently very rare. Perhaps in a colony of hundreds, you might just get a single one.

According to local naturalists, he is said to be devastated to discover that both plants had been dug up – and inexpertly at that, so it seems the specimens were unlikely to survive.


Monday, 9 July 2012

Sir Winston’s ‘lost’ orchids
Some said that if Sir Winston Churchill had chosen painting instead of statesmanship, he would have been a great master.
Some of his works these days fetch serious money, such as a previously unknown oil on canvas by the wartime leader, Still Life With Orchids.
Churchill gave away the work to Margot Sandys, the young wife of his daughter’s father-in-law, was the recipient in 1936.
The depiction of orchids is described as ‘technically accomplished’ by experts and is going on public view this month.
A Royal Horticultural Society source suggests that they are Cattleyas with a Miltonia.
The 46 x 38cm painting is on show at the Masterpiece London exhibition at the Royal Hospital, Chelsea and is expected to fetch about £495,000 when it is sold via private bids.


Tuesday, 3 July 2012

Bee orchid buzz

Maltese botanist Stephen Mifsud has discovered a unique plant new to Malta.

Common in the Med, the temporary name given to this unique plant is ‘the small bumblebee orchid’ or Ophrys Bombyliflora f. parviflora.

The orchid was discovered in 2009 during the course of Mr Mifsud’s work for the Malta Environment and Planning Authority and now has been given a formal recognition in international journals.

Forty out of 26,000 are native to Malta. Although closely related to the common bumblebee orchid, the newly discovered orchid is 30 to 35% smaller in size, its colour is brighter and the shape of the flower is slightly more oblong in shape. Generally, orchids grow in garigues, phrgana and in xeric grasslands. The small bumblebee orchids have so far been found in Pembroke and in Mġarr.

Meanwhile, Blackpool Zoo is celebrating a rather different type of arrival. The large mammal team at the East Park Drive attraction discovered a rare bee orchid behind the Active Oceans Arena, a flower which has never been seen on the site before, according to the press.

The orchids have been protected with fencing and staff at the zoo contacted the Lancashire Wildlife Trust to ascertain how rare they are.

However, in the Florida Everglades, the forested water course known as the Fakahatchee wetland, local biologists fear the future of 39 different orchids, all threatened.

One in particular is the rare cigar orchid. Wildflowers everywhere need bees and other insects to help them reproduce. Some rare orchids have fragrances that attract only a single type of bee. Insects that used to pollinate the cigar orchid have disappeared, since the climate has changed and the Everglades have been drying up.

The birds and the bees can’t be relied upon for the survival of this plant, so local experts are pollinating the orchids manually, says a report. Once the seeds are harvested, they’re taken to a greenhouse and grown into plants for repopulating nature.


Sunday, 24 June 2012

Orchid space therapy

We go back in time to a strange story from 1980, when it was reported that two Soviet cosmonauts aboard the Salyut space were instructed to tend orchids during their stay ‘to help keep up their spirits’, Tass reported. The flowers were cultivated in a greenhouse shipped to Salyut-6 apparently aboard the Progress cargo craft which docked with Salyut before cosmonauts Leonid Popov and Valery Ryumin (pictured on this contemporary Russian stamp) boarded the station.

The orchid they grew was called Cosmonaut – not a very original name, but there you go.

If that isn’t odd, there’s more.

In 1988, Vladimir Tyurin, 36, a gardener at the botanical gardens flower-napped Cosmonaut from the Academy of Sciences botanical garden in the Ukrainian capital of Kiev. He planned to sell it on the black market to an orchid collector. Sadly, the flower died during the bungled attempt.

Cosmonaut was considered priceless and was still being used in biological and genetic experiments because of its space origin. The newspaper said years of study had been wasted because of the early demise of the space orchid, the only one ever grown in a weightless environment.

This wasn’t the first of Tyurin’s botanical escapades. Police followed a trail of rare flowers sold recently on the black market in their eight-day hunt. They arrested Tyurin, who used his pass key to the hot houses for the raid.The only flaw in his scheme was that he failed to remove the tags identifying the stolen flowers as coming from the Academy of Sciences garden in Kiev, making it easy for police to trace their origin. Tyurin would sell the rare orchids to collectors in Moscow at handsome prices. For one shipment of top grade orchids he earned more than $3,200.


Saturday, 16 June 2012

New orchid tribute

Nepali scientist Bhakta Bahadur Raskoti and his team have come across a new species of orchid at Langtang National Park, according to local press.

The new orchid has been named Neottia chandrae to commemorate conservationist Chandra Gurung, who died in a helicopter crash in Taplejung in 2006.

Raskoti, who has also published a book on orchids, has photographed more than 400 orchid species in the country. Neottia chandrae is found in central Nepal, where it is threatened by overgrazing. The newly discovered terrestrial species grows in moist humus-rich slopes in Abies forest.

Spiders on the web

There are only five Audas’ Spider orchid in the world, all in Victoria. State government cuts had threatened to kill off the species – and 30 other endangered orchids – until the Wimmera Catchment Management Authority launched a ground-breaking research program at Horsham, according to an article in the Australian press.

Program leader Dr Noushka Reiter will soon begin introducing 3,000 Metallic Sun orchids into south-west Victoria to help boost its population of just 30 flowering plants in Victoria and 1,000 worldwide. The reintroduction of the rarer Audas species will begin next year.

It is said to be the first large-scale reintroduction of an endangered orchid species in Australia.

Each species of flower is pollinated by a particular species of wasp via process of sexual deception’, meaning the wasp mistakes the flower for another wasp.

The tiny seeds are scattered by wind and only germinate if they land on soil occupied by mycorrhizal fungus.

A specialist laboratory will simulate this process whereby orchid seedlings are created by introducing the seed to the stringy fungi in petri dishes in large numbers.

Pictured above: Australian orchid, the Candy Spider Orchid (Caladenia versicolor)


Tuesday, 29 May 2012

Queen of the night reaches top ten

A night-blooming orchid is one of the Top Ten New Species list for 2012, created by the International Institute for Species Exploration at Arizona State University.

With nearly 25,000 species of orchids known, the astonishing night-blooming orchid, or Bulbophyllum nocturnum, is thought to be the only of its kind. Two scientists from the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew and Leiden University discovered and named the plant for its rare blooming habits. Found in Papua New Guinea, this orchid blooms only at night, between 10pm to the early morning hours when it closes. See more in Orchidmania in November.

This is the fifth year for this interesting record. The list, assisted by a committee of scientists from around the world, was released on May 23.

The 2012 list also features a teensy attack wasp, underworld worm, ancient ‘walking cactus’ creature, blue tarantula, Nepalese poppy, giant millipede, sneezing monkey, fungus named for a TV cartoon character and a beautiful but venomous jellyfish.

Nominations for the 2013 list – for species described in 2012 – may be made online.

Did you know? May 23 is the birthday of the Swedish botanist who created the current system of flora and fauna classification, Carolus Linnaeus. Since Linnaeus created this system in the 18th century, almost two million species have been identified and classified, and scientists estimate that there are between eight and twelve million species total on earth.


Molecular mimicry

Perth scientists have discovered the chemical used by a local orchid to con male wasps into believing it is a female ready to mate.

According to the team, WA native warty hammer orchid (Drakaea livida) pollinates by attracting a male Thynnidae wasp by releasing 2-hydroxymethl-3-(3- methylbutyl)-5-methylpyrazine, a six-membered pyrazine ring, containing two nitrogen atoms and four carbon atomsthat females release when calling for a mate.

The male wasp lands on the orchid expecting to find a female and in the process transfers the pollen from anther to stigma in a process they call pseudo-copulation, according to a recent science article.

The team used gas chromatography with electro- and tenographic detection. The orchid chemically attracts wasps over greater distances, rather than the wasps being visually attracted.

Did you know? The Drakaea orchid is also known as the hammer orchid because of its shape and movement.


Rare slipper orchid is back

Although declared extinct, a rare slipper orchid has returned. Rediscovered in 1930 at a site in the Dales which still remains secret, careful propagation from a solitary parent has gradually increased the plant’s UK population, with sites for new stock regularly and carefully chosen in the north of England.

Kilnsey Park in Wharfedale also has seven other types of orchid among 150 different wildlflowers on its two hectare site, reports The Guardian.

The Lady's Slipper, Cypripedium calceolus, has long been prized for and was coveted by collectors as early as the first decade of the 17th century. In Victorian times, farmers brought them from the Dales to Skipton and Settle markets to sell to curio hunters from the industrial north.

Medicinal gold
The Taiwanese Council of Agriculture (COA) has unveiled a new orchid species for use in traditional Chinese medicine. It contains high levels of polysaccharides that are good for people undergoing chemotherapy.

The Golden Emperor No. 1, which took eight years to develop, is a crossbreed that contains more polysaccharides than the premium orchid species, Dendrobium huoshanense, that originated in China’s Anhui Province, writes local press.

Polysaccharides play a role in stimulating the immune system and can aid the recovery of patients from chemotherapy, said a spokesperson. Eye patients can also benefit from polysaccharides, as they activate the retinal cell layers.

The Golden Emperor No. 1, which will soon be mass produced, takes only two years to grow and can yield 8g to 12g of dried polysaccharides annually.

Tuesday, 24 January 2012

Modern-day botanical mission

Orchid mania  flourishes in Oxford

Originally from South-West France, Guillaume first encountered orchids as a boy in his grandparents’ garden.

Guillaume Le Texier: Glasshouse Team Member,
University of Oxford Botanic Garden
In a story worthy of Gerald Durrell, young Guillaume was playing in the garden, and came across an intriguing little bee. ‘As I watched it bob and hover, I suddenly realised it wasn’t an insect at all, but a bee orchid (Ophrys apifera), mimicking the form of the insect to attract other bees to come and pollinate the flower.’ At that moment, he had a flash of the intriguing relationship between plant and insect – and orchids in particular.

He was hooked. As he continued to explore, he found another orchid, a Serapia, a tongue orchid common in the Bordeaux region. Even at 7am, he spotted bees inside the flower, and he concluded the insects had used the flower as a bedchamber for the night. He was intrigued by this even more subtle relationship, whereby the orchid lured the bee, but also provided protection for its pollinator.

His interest in the world of plants well and truly germinated, he started out in landscape gardening, but began to develop a more scientific interest in botany, wanting to explain to people how and why plants work, and finding connections between plants and humans in each unique eco-system.

Through the Leonardo da Vinci programme, a European training scheme, Guillaume was employed at the National Botanic Garden of Belgium.

‘One task,’ he recalls, ‘was to rescue stolen orchids retrieved by customs officials at the airport’, sadly a not uncommon occurrence. He rehomed these botanical orphans, almost all of which were bereft of documentation. ‘It became a most exotic collection of forbidden treasures, some worth thousands of pounds.’

Dendrobium in one of the Oxford glasshouses
Sadly, he had to leave them all behind when he landed a position in Oxford in 2010, and is now a glasshouse gardener, and a member of the Glasshouse Team.

In the late 19th century, orchid mania lured plant hunters all over the globe in a desperate bid to track down, dig up and sell rare species for a tidy profit. Guillaume is an example of an enlightened orchid maniac of the modern age.

His interest in orchids, exotic and hardy, is not in acquiring exotic species, but in discovery and conservation, all part of the Oxford Botanic Garden’s mission.

‘While I am fascinated by all orchids, exotic and hardy, I have a particular passion for one particular type – vanilla. I find its whole history quite incredible.’

He is a something of an expert, relaying how the young slave, Edmond Albius first solved how to hand-pollinate vanilla flowers in 1841. ‘Later, when the slavery was abolished they gave him the surname of “Albius”, because of the white colour of the vanilla.’

The speedy method involved using a thin stick or blade of grass to pollinate the vanilla orchid and smearing the sticky pollen from the anther over the stigma. The method is still used today, but Albius died in poverty in 1880.

‘Now, huge amounts of money are stake, and I suspect providers play with the supplies to push the price up. It is a shame that lobbyists failed in improving the trade description of vanilla, so the public knows when real vanilla is used in production, and not synthetic flavouring.’

Of course, he is also a great fan of the flavour vanilla. ‘We have a delicacy in my region that is very appealing – Canelés de Bordeaux – small cakes, flavoured with vanilla and rum. We serve it with coffee, or better still, champagne.’ It would be unthinkable to make these with substitute vanilla, he says.

In Oxford, his goal is to find which species grow best under glass in the botanic garden. ‘I really want to improve the display for the visitors, the students and the school groups. The best achievement would be to have flowers and then vanilla pods.’

The focus is on true species, rather than plants that have been selected, crossed and manipulated by people. ‘It’s also important for conservation and genetic material. Having the ancestors of a crop help to cure potential diseases.’

Guillaume’s interest in orchids extends beyond vanilla. For example, he is keen to dispel the myth that tree-growing orchids such as vanilla are parasites. ‘In the 18th century, French botanist Jean-Baptiste de Monet, chevalier de Lamarck (1744-1829) thought all epiphytes such as Bulbophyllum (pictured) were parasites. He turned out to be wrong.’ But the theory stuck, and Guillaume often finds himself setting the record straight.

In fact, he reckons orchids are plagued by misguided notions, most of which are to do with sex and death. ‘In the Middle Ages, they thought bees originated from dead animals, and so they thought bee orchids were the same. Early Greek philosophers thought orchids looked like testicles, so orchids were used as aphrodisiacs. And still are.’

As for orchid addiction, Guillaume admits: ‘You can’t help but be attracted to orchids. They are very high-tech flowers, with many, many tricks to ensure their existence.’ As orchid fans are well aware, orchids can mimic not just bees, but various forms of wasps as well as using pheromones and smells to attract other pollinators, amongst them flies and moths.

‘Of course, in French literature (such as in Proust’s A la recherche du temps perdu), they symbolise beauty and passion and ultimately power. But, orchids are also fragile, especially these days, and need our protection. When pollinators are lost, the orchid is lost.’

This is true whether the orchid is growing in a distant cloud forest or an Oxfordshire meadow, and Guillaume has plans to pursue his interest in local species and work with a local conservation society to promote orchids growing closer to home. ‘You can learn so much from your local eco-system and trace it back to what it depends on for survival.’


Thanks to Dr Alison Foster, Senior Curator at the University of Oxford Botanic Garden
Dr Stuart R. Mackenzie, Tutorial Fellow in Physical and Theoretical Chemistry, Magdalen College, Oxford.

Birds eye view of Oxford Botanic Garden from Magdalen Tower

Photo credits
Bee orchid: © Copyright Ian Capper
Seraphia: Ferran Pestaña
Vanilla, Edmond Albius, Canelés, Bulbophyllum binnendijkii, Cattleya Downiana: Creative Commons
Lamarck’s Encylopédie Méthodique: Botanicus