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