Friday, 18 May 2018

Sex life of orchids - and wasps



Everyone knows that orchids are rude. In Medieval times, images of their suggestive parts were banned - although some clever monks squeezed in a stray bee orchid here and there.

Orchids are never sexier than when they interact with insects, especially wasps. Despite offering no nectar or edible material, caterpillar-hunting wasps just love orchids. There is no other way to say this, but once they find their prey, they enter the flower backwards.

The first person to discover this ‘pseudo-copulation’ was a bespectacled female scientist in the 1920s, one Edith Coleman, who observed and reported on such behaviour of these misguided wasps when she was in her late 40s. Can you imagine the shuddering gasps of the conservative scientific community?

She found that the orchids use pheromones to mimic female wasps. In fact, so strong is the lure, that male wasps will even reject a female wasp to mate with an orchid. During the encounter, wasps collect pollen and perform their task for the orchid, taking it to another orchid offering more, um, action.

Coleman has been recognised with the Australian Natural History Medallion. And now, a zoologist and author Danielle Clode has written about the life of Edith Coleman in her book, ‘The Wasp and the Orchid’. There's a radio transcript, if you're interested.

It sounds like a pulp fiction crime thriller, but hopefully it will be a better read than the rather sleazy, The Orchid Hunter.

It is wonderful to see hidden figures being honoured, albeit somewhat late. Just think of Hidden Figures, Their Finest and even The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society.

Australia has a good track record acknowledging women’s role in society. Can you remember the excitement when My Brilliant Career first came out? Good Lord. It was 1979. Well, perhaps Judy Davis might consider the role if ever they make the film.

I recently saw David Haig in Pressure, a fascinating back-room drama hailing the fortitude and wisdom of the meteorologist James Stagg during Operation Overlord. If a good writer can make weather so riveting, then why not a botanical breakthrough?

Thursday, 17 May 2018

Hanging gardens of botanicum


Majestic Victorian conservatories filled with rare orchids and ferns are simply one of my favourite things. I suppose it was a way to replicate the exciting jungle or temperate rain forest in a more domestic setting.

Courtesy of Pinterest, I’ve become a fan of more modern ways to enjoy orchids and other rather traditional species. I've been collecting for years, but for some reason (global warming?), my orchids and ferns are all suffering. Perhaps I haven't been sensitive to their needs. 
Some of the modern gardening ideas seem impossible to achieve, but every so often, I am lured into the possibility of creating an aerial Hanging Garden of Botanicum.

A New Zealand website has been inspiring: How to make a kokedama which can ‘bring a delicious delicacy to an indoor space’.

Kokedama, I understand, is a Japanese term that translates as ‘moss ball’, involving freeing a plant from a pot, popping its root system into a ball of a growing medium, wrapping that up in moss held together with string and hanging the whole thing from the ceiling.

Happily, it works especially well with epiphytes, including orchids. And, music to my ears, you can also use ferns.

Get some moistened sphagnum moss, bark chip or a specialist orchid mix and a mesh bag. Cut open the bag and cover it with said sphagnum moss, then add enough bark chips or orchid mix so you can roll the bag around it to make a ball. Tie the ball with a rubber band then wrap the orchid roots around it.

Wrap fishing line around the ball to anchor the roots, add another layer of orchid mix and wrap that in more moss.

Using decorative string around the outside, hang the kokedama in a suitable spot.

If it starts to dry out, take it down and soak it in a bowl of water for a quarter of an hour, then drain and replace.

The tough bit is to persuade partner to affix hook in ceiling, because I'm not safe to be let loose with a drill and a ladder at the same time. Could take a while.

PS When researching The Lost Orchid, I found a recipe for restoring tired orchids. It required Epsom salts and gin. I haven't tried this yet, but it sounds more applicable to tired authors. 

Wednesday, 9 May 2018

Grandeur of a miniature world


The Public Domain Review newsletter is a gem. Take the latest essay: Richard Spruce and the Trials of Victorian Bryology.

It’s a fascinating tale of Amazonian botanical espionage and the secret sexuality of mosses as indulged in by obsessive Victorians. Apparently, it was associated with illicit passion, enabling romps outside the strictures of a residence.

Who said moss was boring?
 
Spruce was not one for the regular beauties of the jungle. The beauty of the Amazon, to Spruce, lay in the humble, Godly mosses and hepatics that hearkened back to his botanical ramblings back in Europe, providing respite from the rainforest’s apparently underwhelming — albeit dangerous — daily existence.

Pictured is Plate 72 of the fabulous Kunstformen der Natur (1904), depicting a grove of mosses (referred to by Haeckel as “Muscinae”, a label now obsolete).

The newsletter is free and a welcome fortnightly visitor in my inbox.

Friday, 19 May 2017

Tracking down a royal orchid bouquet


Colourised photo of Queen Victoria.
It is full of qurky errors: see below
As wedding fans ponder the design of Ms Markle's dress, will they also be thinking about the bouquet? 

In the Victorian age, orchids represented power, wealth, glamour, exoticism ... And Queen Victoria knew what she was about.

In a history of the Veitch seed merchants, botanical writer Sue Shepard waxes lyrical about the most magnificent bouquet people had ever seen, made of literally hundreds of orchids.

She notes that it was in honour of Queen Victoria's Golden Jubilee and was composed of every variety of orchid ‘produced with Her Majesty's dominions’. Sadly, Ms Shepard did not reference this, but after some digging around, I found a fascinating article in the Sydney Mail of August 14, 1897, of all places, entitled ‘A Royal Bouquet’. This was for the Diamond Jubilee, ten years later, and this bouquet outdid the 1887 with style. It was a horticultural marvel. The golden jubilee bouquet had 50,000 blooms, according to the article, but the 1897 was even larger and better quality.
  
‘It is impossible to attempt the description in detail of the many thousands of orchids used in this, the most superb bouquet ever seen, endless spikes of all that is best and rarest from her Majesty’s dominion being used, together with almost priceless blossoms of the hybridist’s art raised in this country since our Queen’s accession, many of them unique and of great value, among the choicest varieties being Cattleya Empress of India, C. Our Queen, and C. Victoria Regina, which received awards at the meeting of the Royal Horticultural Society of the 15th instant.’ 
 


Captions:
The false colorised image of Queen Victoria based on black and white photograph taken near the time of her Golden Jubilee over-painted with inaccurate hues. The dress should be black with white lace trimmings, not purple. The jewelry, which is of diamonds, has been painted gold by mistake. She is wearing the small diamond crown which is almost entirely diamonds: it contains very little gold. The orders on her left shoulder are also wrong: the most visible is the badge of the Order of Victoria and Albert, which has a white ribbon not a blue one, and should be surrounded by diamonds not gold. Oops.


Note the orchid bouquets carried by Queen Kapiolani and Crown Princess Liliuokalani of Hawaii at Queen Victoria's Golden Jubilee, 1887. Ruby Hasegawa Lowe, Robin Yoko Racoma (1993) Liliʻuokalani, Kamehameha Schools Press. Credited to Bishop Museum. 

By Pamela Kelt, author of The Lost Orchid.

Thursday, 4 May 2017

Northern discovery

At this time of year, I often scan the hedgerows and meadows for wild British orchids.

Imagine my delight when I came across this little gem at Cragside, a National Trust gem in the North-East. After some trawling, I decided it was a northern marsh orchid, and its identity has been confirmed.

Full the full story - and some eerie coincidences - check out my main blog and read about Fact, fiction and a fascinating find.

Saturday, 29 April 2017

A taste for orchids?

Orchids pop up everywhere.

I came across a fascinating title courtesy of Project Gutenberg. It’s The Slang Dictionary: Etymological,Historical and Andecdotal, by John Camden Hotten, a wonderful 1913 volume, full of oddities.
I love this kind of stuff. Stephen Fry and his QI 'elves' would be jealous.

Whenever I find anything like this, the first thing I do is look up ‘orchid’.

I found this:

Saloop, SALEP, or SALOP, a greasy-looking beverage, formerly sold on stalls at early morning, prepared from a powder made of the root of the Orchis mascula, or Red-handed Orchis. Coffee-stands have superseded SALOOP stalls; but, in addition to other writers, Charles Lamb, in one of his papers, has left some account of this drinkable, which he says was of all preparations the most grateful to the stomachs of young chimney-sweeps. The present generation has no knowledge of this drink, except that derived from books. The word “slops”—as applied to weak, warm drink—is very likely derived from the Cockney pronunciation of SALOOP.

I hastened off to Wikipedia, and found that Orchis mascula is referred to as “long purple” by Gertrude in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Gertrude: “Of crow-flowers, nettles, daisies, and long purples, that liberal shepherds give a grosser name.” It goes on to describe how a flour called salep or sachlav is made of the ground tubers of this or some other species of orchids. It contains a nutritious starch-like polysaccharide called glucomannan. In some magical traditions, its root is called Adam and Eve Root. It is said that witches used tubers of this orchid in love potions.

Webster’s dictionary has a brief entry. Saloop, apparently, is an aromatic drink prepared from sassafras bark and other ingredients, at one time much used in London.

Half right. Clarification appeared with the help of the authoritative author Stephen Hart (aka Pascal Bonenfant), whose research for 'The Unfortunate Deaths of Jonathan Wild' evolved into a marvellous source of 18th-century gems.
 

Hart describes an intriguing book by John Timbs called Club Life of London. In it, he writes that saloop was sold at street stalls in the capital, and was a 'decoction' of sassafras; but it was originally made from Salep, the roots of Orchis mascula. Apparently, the tubers, when cleaned and peeled, were lightly toasted in an oven. 

One Dr Percival recommended salep, stating that it had the property of concealing the taste of salt water, suggesting this might be of use in long sea-voyages. The the root was considered as containing the largest portion of nutritious matter in the smallest space; and when boiled, it was much used in this country before the introduction of tea and coffee, and their greatly reduced prices. 'Salep is now almost entirely disused in Great Britain; but we remember many saloop-stalls in our streets. We believe the last house in which it was sold, to have been Read's Coffee-house, in Fleet-street. The landlord of the noted Mug-house, in Salisbury-square, was one Read.’

By Pamela Kelt


Caption: 'Saloop', a popular beverage of the 18th century. Salop was served in coffee houses as an alternative to coffee or chocolate; and salop-vendors peddled the drink in the streets, or sold it from booths. In this picture a soldier is enjoying a cup. By Thomas Rowlandson, 1820.

Wednesday, 5 April 2017

Wild about orchids in Montenegro


If you’re a fan of wild orchids, and bee orchids in particular, check out a charming post by Marianne van Twillert about orchids in Montenegro.

Did you know that ophrys is Greek for “eyebrow”? According to a legend, these flowers provided a brown dye which the Romans used to day their eyebrows and hair. Ophrys was first mentioned in the book “Natural History” by Pliny the Elder (23-79 AD).

Most ophrys orchids are found in the Mediterranean region. They are dependent on symbiotic fungi, so it is almost impossible to transplant then.

The most famous one is the bee orchid (Ophrys apifera), but there are also fly orchids, spider orchids, mosquito orchids and wasp orchids. This is commonly known, but I was unaware that such orchids can be seen in the mountains and forests of central Montenegro.

Marianne says she was lucky enough to find Bertoloni’s bee orchid near a small spring along the hiking trail from Lovćen to Kotor.

There are also super photos of the early purple orchid (Orchis mascula), the yellow elder-flowered orchid (Dactylorhiza sambucina). The specific Latin name “sambucina” refers to the smell of elder emanating by some plants of this species.

You can also read about the lizard orchid (Himantoglossum hircinum) and the monkey orchid (Orchis simia). I didn’t know they smelled like a ripe orange.

Marianne suggests in her blog that someone organise wildflower or orchid tours for foreign tourists. What a brilliant idea.