Monday, 31 March 2014

Pressing matters

If you've ever been tempted to press one of your favourite orchids, you might be aiding science research in the future. 

Orchid blooms collected up to 150 years ago in Victorian England show that old collections of pressed plants around the world can help the study of climate change, scientists have agreed.

Ecologists compared samples of early spider orchids, held in collections with labels recording the exact day in spring when they were picked in southern England from 1848-1958, and dates when the same flower blossomed in the wild from 1975-2006.

They noticed that warmer years were linked with earlier flowering. In both cases flowering was advanced by about six days per 1 degree Celsius rise in average spring temperature, according to the Journal of Ecology.

The match between higher temperatures and quicker flowering for both old and modern orchids showed for the first time that botanical collections could be a reliable source to study climate, even if temperature records were lacking, they said.

Vast numbers of specimens of plants and animals are in collections around the world, some of them dating back 250 years and long before there were reliable temperature records in many nations.

A UN panel of climate scientists said in 2007 that average world temperatures rose 0.7 degree Celsius (1.3 F) over the 19th century, mainly in recent decades due to a build-up of greenhouse gases from burning fossil fuels.

The 77 pressed orchids, picked when in full bloom, had meticulous records of dates and sites. Early spider orchids have greenish petals and a purple-brown part which looks like the back of a spider.

Above: pressed flowers and leaves in contemporary Chinese-style

By Pamela Kelt

READ THE BOOK! The Lost Orchid is a Gothic-inspired tale of intrigue set in 1880s, when orchidelirium was raging ... Out on 4 April from 

Friday, 28 March 2014

A history of the corsage

The term 'corsage' originally referred to the bodice of a woman’s dress. Since a bouquet of flowers was often worn in the centre of the bodice, the flowers took on the ‘corsage’ tag – ‘a bouquet of the bodice’.

Although the placement of the flowers might have changed, the name stuck and is still used to refer to any small bouquet of flowers worn on the body.

Corsages are made from a small bunch of flowers or a single bloom. Women originally wore a corsage at the waist or the bodice of a dress. Later, it became common to pin flowers to the shoulder or on a handbag. Corsages may even be tied around a wrist, neck, ankle or worn in the hair. Flowers that don’t wilt without water are obviously the best – such as orchids.  Gardenias are rather special, in that they still have a beautiful scent as well.

The ancient Greeks believed that the fragrances of flowers and herbs warded off evil spirits. Not only the bride but other females at the wedding held flower bouquets or attached them to their clothing.

The male wedding party members would wear a small bunch of flowers, usually mixed with fragrant herbs, pinned close to their heart in order to ward off evil spirits. It was believed that these evil spirits would cause the groom to turn his heart against the bride and refuse to love her.

Buttonholes travelled to England during Medieval times. Knights of the realm would wear their lady’s colours upon their chest to show their everlasting love and commitment.

Even without their armour, these colours would be displayed on their left lapel, just as they are still worn by grooms today.

Later, men would wear buttonholes to ward off evil spirits and to give protection against odours and diseases. In the 18th century it became fashionable to wear large flowers to fasten back frock-coats. 

By the 19th century, buttonholes provided a splash of colour against very conservative suits. Buttonholes became the sign of a well-dressed man and can be seen right through to the earlier part of the 20th-century, to judge by portrait paintings and to wedding photography with the arrival of the camera.

It became traditional to give a corsage to the mothers and grandmothers of the bride and groom. Smaller corsages may also be given to godmothers or other women who are important to the participants. A corsage is traditionally worn on the left, since it is closest to the heart.

In the early 19th century a corsage was predominantly a bodice, but by the end of the century the term was used equally for both, so that in 1893 one might read an article describing flower clusters for a corsage and a year later an article describing the latest fashions in corsage bodices, and a few months later read:

‘Corsage bouquets are boldly treated to be in keeping with the puffed sleeves that rule for the nonce… A dainty corsage decoration for a young lady is composed of two light bunches of lily-of-the-valley, connected by fine sprays of amilax.’

By the mid-1900s, corsages moved from the bodice and waist up to the lapel. One blogger made an interesting comment: ‘I’ve noticed, when pinning corsages on older women, they tend to want it pinned higher, more over the should than on the lapel. Also, if left to their own devices, they’ll pin them on upside down, with the bow at the top of the corsage.’
They were also worn on the wrist and on the waist. Does anyone have any photographs, perhaps?

Corsages in the 1930s were more of a bouquet, to judge by the display in this photo.

The term corsage for a fitted bodice was still widely used until the start of WWII, but is rarely seen as a term for a bodice, rather than a cluster of flowers pinned to the bodice, post 1940.

During the Second World War, there are photographs (see Getty Images), of women with hand-knitted flowers in their buttonhole. Now, that’s thrifty.

Today, of course, it is a cluster of flowers given to one’s date at a prom or formal dance to wear on either a dress or a wrist. The variety of corsages available for weddings and high-class events is staggering, although orchids still hold pride of position for glamour and sophistication.

Corsage flowers
To judge by paintings and later photographs, orchids were a high status corsage, despite – or maybe because of – their delicacy. Cattleya, with their frilled petals, were highly sought-after.

From the late 19th-century gardenias were also popular, no doubt because they didn’t wilt too quickly without water. It was the blossom that the jazz singer Billie Holiday tucked in her hair. Its seeds give a vibrant yellow hue that the turn of the century Shanghai courtesans appropriated as a signature shade of their lingerie.

Roses are still popular, partly because they come in a wide variety of colours, have hardwood stems that withstand wear and tear, and a mild fragrance that lingers around them. Carnations in their multiple colours and hues were also common – and more affordable, no doubt. Chrysanthemums as a corsage flower date back decades when they were used in college homecoming arrangements reflecting school colours.


Cattleya Labiata, once a 'lost orchid', which became the most popular of the day in the late 1800s.

Lady with a Corsage, 1911, Edmund C. Tarbell (1862–1938)

Medieval jousting scene

Sgt Major Nickel and his wife, Australia (Toowoomba?), ca 1890

Joan Haynes, Peggy Allen and Mrs W. D. Hardham enjoying a day out at Ascot races, Brisbane, 1939

Arrival ceremony at Maiquetia Airport, Caracas, Venezuela. First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy accepts corsage from young Venezuelan, 16 December 1961 

By Pamela Kelt 

If you're an orchid fan, The Lost Orchid is a Gothic-inspired tale of intrigue set in 1880s, when orchidelirium was raging ... Out on 4 April from 

Thursday, 27 March 2014

Go wild with orchid blooms

Orchids come in such stunning colours, it crossed my mind to take a leaf (if you’ll forgive the expression) from the Victorians and create a pressed flower picture from my own indoor blooms.

The concept of preserving plants by pressing originated with early botanists. But it’s a long-established craft dating back to Greek and Roman times.

In the 1700s and 1800s, flower pressing was a practical way for a botanist to bring specimens back from the wild for later recording and analysing. The botanist’s plant press was simply two large flat boards surrounding alternating stacks of paper. Plants were kept tight with adjustable belt-like straps.

It then evolved into a pastime suitable for genteel ladies and flower pressing was one way to capture and preserve the beauty of the natural world. I certainly recall pressed flower pictures on the walls of my grandmother’s house. I even remember doing my own during the long summer vacations when I was a girl.

It’s regaining popularity in the US. So, time for some therapeutic retro activity ... and jazz things up with some vivid orchid petals. When my flowers are done, I plan to use the pressed flowers in old picture frames to match the décor, or by adding to a scrapbook or greetings card.

1: Lay two sheets of newspaper on a table.

2: Set one orchid on top of the newspaper. Remove the leaves, and cover with two more sheets of newspaper.
3: Open a heavy book and slide the newspaper containing the orchid between the pages. Close the book. Phone books, encyclopedias and complete dictionaries are ideal.
4: Put the book containing the orchid on a desk, and weigh it shut with set several other heavy books on top.
5: Check in a fortnight to see if the orchid has dried out. If any moisture remains, place the orchid in fresh paper and place back in the pages of the book for a further two weeks.
  • If pressing more than one bloom, surround each one in newspaper and place in the heavy book with several pages dividing it from any other orchids.
  •  Pressing orchids at their peak will preserve the vividness of the colour.
To find out more about botanical herbaria, there are some delightful images on Whitby museum's website

The colourful image above is fanciful 'orchid-coloured' version of a contemporary Chinese flower picture.

By Pamela Kelt

If you're an orchid fan, The Lost Orchid is a Gothic-inspired tale of intrigue set in 1880s, when orchidelirium was raging ... Out on 4 April from

Tuesday, 25 March 2014

As nature intended

Living in the UK, I can only envy those orchidmaniacs in warmer climes. But perhaps there is a way to recreate an orchid growing in the wild ...

Some devoted fans love to grow their orchids mounted to pieces of tree. Apparently, recreating the rainforest culture is not as challenging as it sounds. Could one try this in a northerly country. 

According to an orchid expert, Arthur Chadwick, all you need is cork, fishing line, sphagnum moss and some un-potted orchid plants.

Most orchids are epiphytes and live their entire life attached to trees. Constant clouds release their water. Root tips grow and wrap around tree bark and nutrients are obtained from decaying jungle vegetation.

 • Find a mount: traditionally, cork slab is best, or try tree fern chunks, wood-slatted baskets or a tree branch. Secure in place with wire, screwing in hooks if necessary.

• Choose the orchid: Cattleyas, Dendrobiums, Oncidiums and Phalaenopsis are the best. Remove the plant from the pot and brush off the old potting material.

• Attach the plant: place some moist sphagnum moss between the roots and the mount. Wrap the plant with fishing line, plastic plant ties or small pieces of nylon tights, apparently.

• Hang: preferably near a window, or even a curtain rod. Consider a bathroom, even.

• Think about watering: Do this more often than potted orchids, usually every day with a sprayer bottle or stick it in the sink under a tap. It must get very wet.

With luck, new roots will emerge in a few months and become attached to the mount. The plant is then secure and eventually you can remove the fishing line. Roots visible, and even sprouting pseudo-bulbs should be seen clearly.

Thanks, Arthur. I’m hooked.

Arthur Chadwick is president of Chadwick & Son Orchids Inc

Even in Victorian times, orchids were under threat. READ THE BOOK! The Lost Orchid is a Gothic-inspired tale of intrigue set in 1880s, when orchidelirium was raging ... Out on 4 April from


Friday, 21 March 2014

Hotspot orchids under the microscope

What is the greatest risk to orchids?

Inclement weather? Violent events such as landslides or earthquakes? Disease?

No, it’s habitat destruction driven by urban and tourist development and industrial, agricultural and mining pressure.

This is the sad finding of a valuable tome on the massive variety of orchid in a biodiversity hotspot.

Experts studied flora in Cuba, Jamaica, Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, and Hispaniola, and produced a highly respectable 640-page volume with detailed accounts of the 594 currently known orchid species in the Greater Antilles.

The stonking tome incorporates recent findings about how plant DNA is used to resolve long-standing questions about what constitutes a distinct species or group of related species, according to a report.

Did you know that orchids rank among the most species-rich family of flowering plants in the Greater Antilles, which extend from Cuba in the west to Anegada, an island of the British Virgin Islands, in the east? In fact, there are 120 species of Lepanthes.

Here’s a lovely sentiment from Dr. Ackerman, a professor of biology at the University of Puerto Rico:

“I have hope that the orchid flora of the Greater Antilles is unusually resilient after disturbance and there is some indication that this may be so. hange has always occurred. We certainly have the capacity to dramatically accelerate the process and we also have the ability to minimize the detrimental consequences. All we need is the will.”

Captions: Typical Antilles vegetation and a Lepanthes stenophylla

By Pamela Kelt

 Even in Victorian times, orchids were under threat. READ THE BOOK! The Lost Orchid is a Gothic-inspired tale of intrigue set in 1880s, when orchidelirium was raging ... Out on 4 April from

Wednesday, 19 March 2014

Orchids in odd places

Some people can afford to collect orchids. I collect orchid resources. Imagine my delight when I tripped over these ...

Just pop the search term orchids and then heraldry, coins or stamps. Crazy but true.
They’re all on Wikipedia, and many are copyright free. The stamps category offers some particularly rich and colourful pickings.

READ THE BOOK! The Lost Orchid is a Gothic-inspired tale of intrigue set in 1880s, when orchidelirium was raging ... Out on 4 April from

Monday, 17 March 2014

Orchid newsreel

This flickering newsreel is rather sinister.

It takes place on the rock far in the Cyclops Mountains in the inlands of New Guinea, the so-called New Guineas.

Trees are taken down to obtain the rare orchids. The local Papuan people climb the lianas to the top to pick them. The flowers are then sold in Holland.

It is labelled 1 January, 1955, although it doesn't take much imagination to picture the scene from decades before.,_orchidee%C3%ABn_Weeknummer_55-49_-_Open_Beelden_-_17447.ogv

By Pamela Kelt

READ THE BOOK! The Lost Orchid is a Gothic-inspired tale of intrigue set in 1880s, when orchidelirium was raging ... Out on 4 April from

Saturday, 15 March 2014

Raiders of the last orchids ...

Forgive the pun above, but have we learned nothing about plant conservation?

Orchid thieves are putting entire species of the rare flowers at risk, specialists say. For the past 20 years, illegal traders have been looting native wild orchids from the country’s forests.

It’s a sorry state of affairs. U Saw Lwin, orchidologist and plant tissue culturist, said orchid numbers have fallen significantly since 1988 because of illegal trading to foreign countries, especially China.

“Both legal and illegal border trade between Myanmar and China increased after 1988. The Myanmar native orchid is not widely used in traditional medicine here, but orchids have been widely used in Chinese medicine for centuries. The dendrobium orchid has been exported to Chinese extensively since 1988,” he said, according to a press report.

In Myanmar, dendrobium orchids are mostly found in Chin, Shan and Kachin states, he said, adding that “over-collection has resulted in near-extinction for some species”.

Others are similarly at risk; the orchid type pazun or nilone was once plentiful in Chin State but has been hit hard. “Now, you would find only two plants a day, with luck,” U Saw Lwin said.

According to the Nature and Wildlife Conservation Division of the Ministry of Environmental Conservation and Forestry, seven cases of illegal orchid trading were recorded last year. More than 3000 viss, or almost 5 tonnes (one viss equals 1.6 kilograms or 3.6 pounds), of orchids were seized in 2013, mostly in Chin and Shan states.

Native wild orchids are protected under the Protection of Wildlife and Protected Areas Law (1994), and those found guilty of removing, collecting or destroying specimens without permission can face five years in jail, a fine of K30,000 or both.

Orchid expert U Nyan Tun, from Taunggyi in southern Shan State, said orchids are also at risk because of deforestation, hillside cultivation and logging. “But the main factor is over-collection by humans.”

The lack of job opportunities in the area is blamed. The answer? Eco-tourism could help, along with better airline links to promote the legitimate orchid business.

Caption: Paphiopedilums (slipper orchids) are particularly at risk.

By Pamela Kelt 

Even in Victorian times, orchids were under threat. READ THE BOOK! The Lost Orchid is a Gothic-inspired tale of intrigue set in 1880s, when orchidelirium was raging ... Out on 4 April from  

Friday, 14 March 2014

Secret life of fungus

Researchers are using fungus as a secret ingredient to save threatened spider orchids in Australia.

The rosella spider orchid  (Caladenia rosella) and the wine-lipped spider orchid (Arachnorchis oenochila) are both at risk. Labs are using fungus to assure that each of the species survive. A team from the Royal Botanic Gardens, nine landcare groups and the Nillumbik Shire Council searched the area to collect the wild orchid samples.

Because of the delicate nature of the work Neil Anderton, a volunteer from Royal Botanic Gardens, used dental tools to remove samples less than a centimetre in size from just below the soil line, reports a recent issue of Pollinia. 

The sample is cleaned and the fungi removed. They are then allowed to grow in a petri dish. Orchid seeds that were collected 12 months earlier and stored in a freezer at -20F degrees were then scattered over the fungi and jelly.

Mr Anderton said that it will take at least two years before these orchids could be planted into the wild. Data suggests that there are less than 100 rosella spider orchid plants left in the Nullumbik Shire.

The rosella spider orchid is listed as endangered in Victoria, while the wine-lipped spider orchid is listed as vulnerable.

There are fewer than 100 rosella spider orchid plants spread over four populations in the Nullumbik Shire, while the largest number of wine-lipped orchid plants on one site is at St Andrews, where about 800 plants grow.

Recreating wild conditions for the orchids to propagate in protected conditions is a challenge due to the complex interactions between the fungi and the orchids being pollinated by wasps. 

Caption: Several Caladenia species from Pelloe's West Australia Orchids

READ THE BOOK! The Lost Orchid is a Gothic-inspired tale of intrigue set in 1880s, when orchidelirium was raging ... Out on 4 April from

Friday, 7 March 2014

Miniature marvels

Orchids not only produce the tiniest seeds in the world, but they do in the millions. Check out a great article on the Kew Gardens website about why this is so.

Did you know a  typical orchid seed is merely the size of a speck of dust?

A single capsule of the tropical American orchid Cycnoches chlorochilon produces almost four million seeds, and one gram of seeds of the southeast Asian species Aerides odorata contains 3.4 million seeds.

Those of the New Caledonian species Anoectochilus imitans are said to be the smallest of all, measuring just 0.05 mm in length. At a ‘gigantic’ 6 mm, the seeds of the lopsided star orchid (Epidendrum secundum) are allegedly the longest of any orchid.

Monday, 3 March 2014

Lasting impressions

The latest US orchid show celebrates the work of three artists who found creative energy in the beauty of landscapes: Vincent van Gogh, Claude Monet and Paul Gauguin. 

Atlanta botanical garden’s Orchid Daze: Lasting Impressions (until 13 April) showcases the artists’ dazzling ways of seeing and perceiving the world.

The mad genius of Van Gogh’s Starry Night inspires the design for an overhead display of jewel-like miniature orchids, and upright spikes of dancing lady orchids echo his impasto brushstrokes.