Tuesday, 1 April 2014

Rare 'lost orchid' discovered


One of the planet’s rarest orchids has been rediscovered in Scotland by the descendant of the plant collector who first found the bloom over a century ago.

An artist’s impression of the new ‘lost orchid’
with its tartan markings
Perth-born Bill McPhairson, great grandson of the famous Scottish plant hunter-turned-hybridiser John Telfer McPhairson, was walking his dog in local woods when he came across the scarlet and blue Pseudo-Phalaenopsis mcphairsoniana.

Like his father and grandfather before him, Bill is something of an orchidist and recognised the distinctive petals right away, with their striking striations reminiscent of the distinctive Kelt tartan.

Experts are calling it a national treasure and Bill is spearheading a campaign to have the orchid designated the new national flower of Scotland.

The exact location, of course, is a guarded secret. However, members of the local rugby team, the Bluewood Demons, famous for their 98-5 defeat of local rivals, Hawesville Harriers, are mounting a 24/7 vigil to ensure its safety. ‘We’re not exactly botanists,’ said captain, Stuart ‘Haggis’ MacSween, ‘but me and the boys’ll take no hostages if any of those mad orchoholics gets near our prize specimen.’

To find out about other ‘lost orchids’, fact and fiction, read The Lost Orchid by Pamela Kelt, out on Bluewood Publishing on 4 April.

See below for the full story as reported in the Perthshire Chronicle.

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One the planet’s rarest orchids has been rediscovered in Scotland by the descendant of the plant collector who first found the bloom over a century ago.

Perth-born Bill McPhairson, great grandson of the famous plant hunter-turned-hybridiser John Telfer McPhairson, originally from Leith, was walking his dog in the local woods when he came across the scarlet and blue Pseudo-Phalaenopsis mcphairsoniana.

Like his father and grandfather before him, Bill is something of an orchidist and recognised the distinctive petals right away, with their striking striations reminiscent of the distinctive Kelt tartan.

‘There I was, enjoying the autumn weather in Surprise Valley,’ said Bill, ‘when my dog Stanley began to bark at something in the grass. I took one look and recognised it immediately – Dad had a sketch of it that took pride of place on the mantelpiece. Let’s just say, Surprise Valley lived up to its name.’

His ancestor, John Telfer McPhairson, spent many years as a young man trawling the Empire for rare blooms until he tired of the skulduggery and ungentlemanly practices of his fellow plant hunters. Shunning the huge rewards on offer, he set up nurseries in Stoneleigh Wootton, Warwickshire, where he set out to hybridise new species in a bid to protect the desecration of orchid fields around the world.

He is especially well known for the Phalaenopsis flora, named after his beloved niece, who came to live with him in the 1880s after what was rumoured to be a scandalous affair turned sour.

McPhairson visited Surprise Valley in Perthshire (also known locally as Coillegorm, or ‘Bluewood’) as a young plant collector, and hoped to make his name by rediscovering a whole host of Scottish wild orchids. He documented the location of what he dubbed the Pseudo-Phalaenopsis mcphairsoniana, the so-called tartan orchid and planned to take a limited number of specimens to Kew for formal identification. The Phalaenopsis is not native to Scotland, hence the name.

But disaster struck at his home port when a crew member disenchanted with the decision to seek English advice over the local experts at Edinburgh’s botanic garden. In a whisky-fuelled rage, he set fire to the vessel mid-voyage and the ship capsized. While the crew and passengers were rescued by North Berwick fishermen, McPhairson’s specimens were lost, although he did hold onto his notes, wrapping them in a borrowed sou’wester to keep out the seawater. The orchid has never been seen since. 

The Fritillaria meleagris is a classic example
of striking natural symmetry

Horticultural expert Albert Wintergreen of the Chester-West Society, a respected natural history institution, was delighted by the find. ‘The Pseudo-Phalaenopsis mcphairsoniana is a treasure,’ he said. ‘The markings are indeed startling, but one only has to consider the chequerboard features of the Fritillaria meleagris to see that natural organisms can produce fantastically complex and geometric patterns that beggar belief.’

He noted that April flowering orchids are not entirely unknown north of the border, especially in areas blessed by the effect of the Gulf Stream, such as Spiranthes trossachae (Lady’s Tresses) and the Earina primavera.

Lost orchids
Orchids were so popular in the 19th century that the passion for them was dubbed orchidomania, and orchidelirum. The ‘lost orchids’ were the rarest of species that had been identified earlier, but lost, due to over-harvesting, natural causes or deliberate misinformation, to throw rivals off the scent.

They fetched top prices of several hundred guineas – a small fortune and huge rewards were offered.

Two infamous lost orchids: Paphiopedilum curtisii
and Paphiopedilum sanderianum

One particularly colourful story tells of the Paphiopedilum curtisii, a striking slipper orchid, first found in 1882 by Charles Curtis. Curtis would only say the plants were from Sumatra. Once the initial shipment had been sold, the price shot up.

Five years later, the rival firm of Sander and Sons sent collector Claes Ericsson to Sumatra, charged with following Curtis’ trail. Another five years went by as Ericsson trawled the inhospitable jungles, shipping back plenty of new orchids – dodging the cannibals in the area who had developed a taste for Europeans. After several deaths, the authorities forbade further travel, but Ericsson got permission to take an armed party into the mountains. Then illness struck and the party rested at a small hospital near the capital Padang. As Ericsson languished in his bed, he spotted a scrawled message on the wall and a drawing of a slipper orchid, alongside the initials CC. Convinced that Curtis had indeed passed that way, the party set off once again and sure enough, one of the hired locals returned with the elusive bloom. Two days later, they had collected several thousand plants, and successfully shipped them all back to Sander in England

Paphiopedilum sanderianum is another ‘lost orchid’ with a remarkable tale. The species is highly desired in the orchid world due to the amazing petal length the flower produces. The stunning petals can reach three feet (one metre).

This slipper orchid grows in the jungles of Borneo, East Malaysia at elevations ranging from 300 to 1500 feet. It was first discovered by J. Foerstermann, a collector who was sent out by Frederick Sander in 1885 with the intention of locating Paphiopedilum stonei var. platytaenium. Stumbling across Paphiopedilum sanderianum was a complete accident. Despite its appeal, it was hard to cultivate and there were few illustrations of the flower available for botanists, collectors, and researchers to use as reference. Around the 20th century, all known plants were in cultivation were lost because growers lacked the expertise to grow them properly. With no detail on where the plant was first discovered or collected, orchid enthusiasts were at a loss.

Rumours spread that this plant never existed and even if it did exist, collectors came to the conclusion that the species became extinct in its natural habitat. Some say that this plant was a myth while others say it was a made-up story to detract other orchid hunters from finding other species.

To much botanical applause, in 1978, Ivan Nielson rediscovered the habitat of Paphiopedilum sanderianum among the mountains of Gunung Mulu National Park.

Thorny problem: could this mark the end of
the thistle as Scotland's national emblem?
The future
Bill is now spearheading a campaign to have the orchid designated as the new national flower of Scotland to mark the new spirit of independence. Mr Wintergreen agrees. ‘The McPhairson orchid has so much more to offer a new nation with such a rich past, reminding us that no-one should take the world’s bounty in vain.’

Expert botanists from the Botanical Organisation for the Germination of Unknown Species have been invited to view the orchid, amid rumours that the bloom could be a rare natural hybrid created by the micro-climate of Surprise Valley.

The exact location, of course, is a guarded secret. Since 1 April, when the orchid was rediscovered, members of the local rugby team, the Bluewood Demons, famous for their 98-5 defeat of local rivals, Hawesville Harriers, have pledged to mount a 24-hour, seven-days-a-week vigil to ensure its safety. ‘We’re not exactly botanists,’ said captain, Stuart ‘Haggis’ MacSween, ‘but me and the boys’ll take no hostages if any of those mad orchoholics get near our prize specimen.’

To find out about other ‘lost orchids’, fact and fiction, read The Lost Orchid by Pamela Kelt, out on Bluewood Publishing on 4 April. 


Captions
An artist’s impression of the new ‘lost orchid’ with its tartan markings
http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Milk_thistle.jpg
http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Fritillaria-meleagris-blomst.JPG http://commons.wikimedia.org

http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Sanderianum2.jpg

By Pamela Kelt