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

Sunday, 1 January 2012

Reichenbach’s revenge

Reichenbach Falls is enjoying some media spotlight – and merits a mention due to an intriguing orchid connection.

Detective fans will know the famous setting of what was intended to be the final encounter between Sherlock Holmes and his arch-nemesis, Professor Moriarty.

However, the name will also ring a bell with orchid maniacs, familiar with Heinrich Gustav Reichenbach (1823-1889), who became known as the ‘Orchid King’.

Of course, the setting is Gothically splendid, fit for the deadly encounter, and still much visited today. But what is the orchid connection? Moving back to Reichenbach himself, he was born at Leipzig,Germany in 1823, son of H.G.L. Reichenbach, author of the Icones Forae Germanicae et Helveticae. From the age of 18, young Reichenbach took a great interest in orchids, often in association with John Lindley.

After John Lindley’s death in 1865, orchid specimens from all over the world were sent to him for identification – and he became known as the ‘Orchid King’. These, along with his own prodigious collection of scrawled notes and drawings, combined to create an immense herbarium which rivalled that of Lindley’s at Kew.

He was a frequent correspondent, but his letters were often tinged with wit and sarcasm – and more than a twinge of frustration at his perceived intrusion of others into what he considered his domain. Despite the fact that as a student, he had relied on the work of others, he guarded his own herbarium with what could be described as a manic obsession. Orchids can do this to you.

According to an obituary in the Gardener’s Chronicle for 18 May 1899: ‘His devotion to Orchids amounted to a consuming passion; not a scrap, nor a note, nor a sketch, however rough, came amiss to him if it related to an Orchid. To him meals and clothes were necessary evils, but his herbarium was a prime necessity of existence.’

Towards the end of his life, he had led Kew to believe that this herbarium would pass to them. But something happened to change his mind and Reichenbach had a peculiar will drawn up that caused a furore in the botanical world when he died in 1889 – two years before the publication of The Final Encounter. He seemed so fixated on making the correct orchid diagnosis that he wrote of his collection: ‘they will have to be distinctly kept within reach of the men of science after my death.’

Reichenbach bequeathed the lot to Vienna – on the condition they would be locked away for quarter of a century ‘in order that the inevitable destruction of the costly collection, resulting from the present craze for Orchids, may be avoided.’ If Vienna wouldn’t abide by this request, everything would go to Upsala, thence Harvard, or finally to the Jardin des Plantes. Kew was out of luck.

Uproar ensued. The terms of the will were respected, however, and the Hof Museum accepted the Reichenbach herbarium and library. Why the change of heart? Some say it was because Kew had hired a certain Robert A. Rolfe to help with orchid identification. Rolfe was self-educated and rose through the ranks to become an expert on orchids. It must have rankled Reichenbach that a self-taught person could be considered an authority. (Rolfe became the first curator of the orchid herbarium at Kew, founded the magazine The Orchid Review, and published many papers on hybrids of different species of orchids.)

Still, Kew must have been pained to miss out on the ‘Rolls Royce’ of orchid books, entitled Reichenbachia: Orchids Illustrated and Described, named in Reichenbach’s honour. This four-volume 19th century text was a collaboration by German-born orchidologist Frederick Sander which features life-size illustrations and descriptions of nearly 200 orchids by artist Henry George Moon, with text in English, French, and German. Work began in 1886 and lasted until 1890, a year after Reichenbach’s death.

The folio edition measures 550 by 410mm, and several hundred editions were produced at great extravagance regardless of costs, which in 2011 money terms would be in excess of half a million pounds. Only a small proportion of this was recovered from sales.

There was a rare Imperial Edition, of which only 100 copies were made, each measuring an elephantine 750 by 600mm), weighing 20 kilos, or 44 pounds per volume. The people to whom they were dedicated creates fascinating possibilities of dynastic rivalry: Queen Victoria; Augusta Victoria of Schleswig-Holstein, Empress of Germany and Queen of Prussia; Maria Feodorovna, Empress of Russia; and Marie Henriette of Austria respectively.

Sander himself, who also became known as the ‘Orchid King’, was also piqued at Reichenbach’s cold shouldering of Kew. In the preface to the second series volume of Reichenbachia, he wrote: ‘It is not too much to say that “savants” all over the world were shocked by the selfish withdrawal of treasure which shold, so far as possible, be made common property for students. That Reichenbach, our honoured chief, should do his best when dying to check the progress of those studies to which he dedicated his life, is humiliating to our common nature. We in England must work on, recovering the stores of information which he has buried – and we shall succeed.’

So, back to Sherlock Holmes and his creator Conan Doyle, and the significance of Reichenbach Falls.

The famous author himself was shown round one Swiss holiday by his host and founder of Lunn Poly and the Public Schools Alpine Sports Club (later the Alpine Ski Club), Sir Henry Lunn. Lunn’s grandson, skier and SIS spymaster, Peter recalled: ‘My grandfather said “Push him over the Reichenbach Falls”.’ Once Conan Doyle had visited the spot, he obviously agreed. A memorial plate at the funicular station reads: ‘At this fearful place, Sherlock Holmes vanquished Professor Moriarty, on 4 May 1891.’

Visitors flock from around the world to capture the epic grandeur and picture the gripping Cain and Abel-style conflict. The scene has been created and recreated in film and television, the latest being the 2011 blockbuster, Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows, complete with the CGI addition of a fantastic large castle built over them (filmed in Vancouver and Iceland, if you like that kind of detail).

But surely there is more to it than just dramatic Turneresque scenery. Heinrich Reichenbach’s name was in all the newspapers, and the source of much discussion in European circles at his insult to a major British institution. At the very least, there must have been some subconscious element of recognition.

It is easy to imagine Conan Doyle finding the name of the falls redolent with the correct psychological associations, reminding his audience of the shock when the eccentric orchidist must have raised eyebrows in diplomatic circles over his perverse legacy. It is ironic that so many of these illustrations are now free to use via Creative Commons and Wikimedia and other enlightened websites.

Is there also an undertone of European tension thrown in? Reichenbach was German-born, but left his collection to an Austrian institute. Sander was also German, but settled in the UK, with businesses in the US and Belgium. Can one take it further? Did Conan Doyle possibly view Moriarty’s ‘web of intrigue’ as an allegory of Reichenbach's fanatical control over his botanical world?

Like many, did the author suspect that Reichenbach was so jealous of Sander’s success, another ‘orchid king’, that he did everything possible – from beyond the grave – to keep his precious collection away from his perceived arch-nemesis?

Maybe Conan Doyle was a closet orchid maniac. Read this from his 1912 novel Lost World (see below), and see what you think:

‘The road still ascended, and we crossed a rock-studded slope which took two days to traverse. The vegetation had again changed, and only the vegetable ivory tree remained, with a great profusion of wonderful orchids, among which I learned to recognise the rare Nuttonia Vexillaria and the glorious pink and scarlet blossoms of Cattleya and odontoglossum. Occasional brooks with pebbly bottoms and fern-draped banks gurgled down the shallow gorges in the hill, and offered good camping-grounds every evening on the banks of some rock-studded pool, where swarms of little blue-backed fish, about the size and shape of English trout, gave us a delicious supper.’


Gardener’s Chronicle (image courtesy Missouri Botanical Garden.http://www.botanicus.org)
Reichenbachia: Orchids Illustrated and Described (image courtesy Missouri Botanical Garden.http://www.botanicus.org)
Illustration of Cattleya warscewiczii, 1858 from Xenia orchidacea, vol.1 tab. 31 (image courtesy Missouri Botanical Garden.http://www.botanicus.org)