Friday, 31 January 2014

Almonds, vanilla or rat poison?

The other week, I was writing about ladies'-tresses orchids in Scotland. Then another one popped up in East Ontario. Well, as a true orchidmaniac, I was intrigued.

It seems these orchids are hard to distinguish - apart from one key feature. Their fragrance.

Spiranthes cernua and Spiranthes magnicamporum are so similar in appearance that even expert taxonomists have difficulty telling them apart.

Here's something that caught my eye. Just over 30 years ago, S. magnicamporum didn’t even technically exist as a species, according to a delightful article in a Chicago wildflower magazine.

However, there are small clues. S. cernua usually begins to bloom in mid-August, while magnicamporum flowers slightly later, in early to middle September. Cernua usually still has its leaves by the time it flowers, while magnicamporum loses all its leaves. Cernua prefers wetter habitats than magnicamporum, and is self-pollinated instead of pollinated by bees like magnicamporum.

But what's an amateur to do? Use your nose.

If there are enough of them, you can smell the scent out on the prairie,” says Cathy Bloome, an appropriately-named orchid monitor in Lake and Cook Counties. She describes the scent as similar to vanilla. Others have described it as smelling like almonds.

Some can detect the compound likely responsible for the scent: it's coumarin, a nature-derived flavouring used in food until the 1950s and more recently as a somewhat controversial scent in tobacco and perfume. It was found to cause liver damage, and now also serves as a component in rat poison.

Well, that's something I didn't know.

By Pamela Kelt

Captions: Spiranthes cernua and Spiranthes magnicamporum. Can you tell which is which?

Monday, 27 January 2014

Orchid responds to climate change?

Ladies’-tresses orchids are gracing the headlines once again, this time in Canada.

Orchid fan Paul Catling was exploring the Burnt Lands Provincial Park east of Almonte when he came across some late-blooming wildflowers.

According to a local report, there are many orchids in Eastern Ontario. But his discovery puzzled him. They resembled nodding ladies’-tresses, but they were blooming too late.

Mr Catling, a scientist and wildflower expert, reckons the orchids were, in fact, Great Plains ladies’-tresses (Spiranthes magnicamporum) which flourish from Manitoba to Texas.

But why were they growing so far north? One unnerving argument is that they’re a tough breed and have been there since the ice age and are now revitalised by climate change.

The plant is 25-30cm high, with bright white flowers and a strong, complex fragrance, with rose and vanilla accents.

There are more than 25,000 orchid species in the world, mostly tropical. With this arrival, there are now 45 orchids native to the Ottawa area.

By Pamela Kelt

PS A rare ladies'-tresses orchid was also found recently in Scotland - see my blog article.

Sunday, 26 January 2014

Mad botany

The Victorians weren't just crazy about orchids.

Ferns, palms, alpines ...

Check out an illustrated article on The Lost Orchid, a blog relating to my Gotch-inspired book, The Lost Orchid. It'll be out soon chez Bluewood Publishing.

By Pamela Kelt

Friday, 24 January 2014

Orchid: 'film noir' queen of fashion

Picture a modern catwalk. All right.Skimpy skirts, long legs, attitude.

Now, picture a fashion show from the late 1930s. Languid models, long evening gowns, fabulous fabrics.

A new couture collection has turned back time and explored the the shapes, petal patterns and colours of the orchid as a source of inspiration. Two dresses in particular glowed during Couture Fashion Week in Paris.

The designer partnered with ‘Art of Life’, a group of Dutch Orchid Growers to create the pieces. The groups provided Taminiau with a sea of the flowers to support his creative inspiration, which I felt had a strictly ‘film noir’ appeal.

He said: “The orchid not only inspired me, it surprised me. Orchids are every bit as fascinating as the women who walk into my studio.”

According to the press, the dresses symbolise the orchid’s status in the plant kingdom. Not only is the orchid the queen of plants, it’s also the perfect living fashion and home accessory.

One dress (above, was inspired by the Phalaenopsis, the moth orchid. The name is derived from the Greek words ‘Phalaina’ (moth) and ‘opsis’ (resembling).  The story goes that during one of his trips, Dutch botanist, Dr C.L. Blume, saw a group of butterflies floating almost motionless beside a tree. These turned out to be Phalaenopsis orchids.

Jan Taminiau was also intrigued by the Vanda Orchid, a rare orchid that does not need any earth to survive. Its roots hang loose in the air or wrap themselves around  trees. The dress pictured has a languorous quality that I haven't seen since ... The House of Eliot. So shoot me.


By Pamela Kelt

Saturday, 18 January 2014

The clever Dr Ward

After some months, my Gothic adventure, The Lost Orchid, has reached its final editing stages, so I've been revisiting the 1880s and the original orchidmania.

I came across a photo of this rather lugubrious chap who changed the face of botany by inventing a glass case to transport specimens. Meet Dr Nathaniel Bagshaw Ward and his amazing Wardian Case. Before this, collectors just threw specimens into sacks and hoped for the best.

These Victorians were all bonkers. His personal herbarium amounted to 25,000 specimens.

Dr Ward also kept cocoons of moths and the like in sealed glass bottles, and in one, he found that a fern spore and a species of grass had germinated and were growing in a bit of soil. Interested, he left the seal intact for about four years, noting that the grass actually bloomed once. After that time however, the seal had rusted, and the plants soon died from city pollution. So the clever Dr Ward had a carpenter build him a closely fitted glazed wooden case and found that ferns grown in it thrived.

He published his experiment and followed it up with a book in 1842, On the Growth of Plants in Closely Glazed Cases.

You can read free it for yourself here.

By Pamela Kelt

Friday, 17 January 2014

Aussies and orchids

Australian orchid fans are in the news again, with the sighting of a rare orchid.

One couple spotted a website photo of the rare hyacinth orchid in Naracoorte and drove from Melbourne (nearly 300 miles) to photograph it for themselves, according to a press report.

He said the couple he encountered travel all around Australia taking pictures of different orchids, uploading them to their Retired Aussies website. It’s a wonderfully colourful site for sore eyes, especially if you’re from the northern hemisphere.

Although some hyacinth orchids grow in the area, this is the first sighting at this location.

Local orchidmaniacs ensure the plants stay untouched, marking their location with paint and even making sure potentially damaging mowers don't interfere with the plant.

By Pamela Kelt

PS If you’re interested, the name Naracoorte (above) has gone through a number of spellings, and is believed to be derived from the Aboriginal words for place of running water or large waterhole.

Friday, 10 January 2014

Weird orchids ... on camera

Orchids are deceitful temptresses, cunningly luring their victims with their wily ways.

Take a look at this fascinating video by Esther Beaton, focusing on Australian orchids.

There are many ways in which orchids are pollinated, but the majority require a third-party pollinator to transfer pollen from one plant to another. Some provide a pollen or nectar food reward; others simply mimic food-rewarding plants but provide no treat.

One of the more interesting pollination syndromes in Australia is sexual deception. Male thynnine wasps are drawn in by pheromones, and then mate with the flowers, thinking they are female wasps. This transmits pollen between plants. These relationships are very specific, with many individual species of orchid pollinated by individual species of wasp.

Pictured: Drakaea livida, from Myles H. M. Menz, Ryan D. Phillips, Kingsley W. Dixon, Rod Peakall and Raphael K. Didham (2013) on "Mate-Searching Behaviour of Common and Rare Wasps and the Implications for Pollen Movement of the Sexually Deceptive Orchids They Pollinate". 

Friday, 3 January 2014

Giant comeback for stars of the swamp

It might grow to the height of a man, with bright flowers are as large as a saucer, but giant swamp orchids are still hard to spot.

Arguably one of the world's most endangered plant species with just 100 growing in the wild, Australian scientists think they've found the answer to propagating the orchid, claims a report.

Griffith University's Professor Roderick Drew has used tissue from one giant swamp orchid to reproduce between 200 and 300 others in a lab setting.

Orchids have tiny seeds, like particles of dust, which are tricky to handle. According to Professor Drew, ‘once you do manage to tissue culture an orchid … you can multiply it in the laboratory and go a long way towards saving it’. Encouraging news, especially as  plant tissue culture technology could be used to resurrect other endangered plant species, according to the professor.

Micropropagation involves using cells from one plant and growing another in a light and temperature-controlled laboratory. The lab orchids will be transferred to a nursery before being planted in the wild.

Its red-brown flowers measure as much as 12cm wide and smell similar to jasmine. It’s probably that it’s in decline because people are so impressed by its size and beauty they dig it up or pick the flowers.

By Pamela Kelt 

Pictured: a Phaius orchid, Magnus Manske