Friday, 16 September 2016

Vanilla dilemma

It’s all very well to promise natural ingredients, but major corporations have triggered a vanilla crisis.

World production of natural vanilla is minute and has been falling in recent years. Did you know that less than 1% of vanilla flavour comes from actual vanilla orchids?

With demand increasing, there is a serious shortage of this fragrant and special orchid. Vanilla is a labour-intensive crop, requiring 600 hand-pollinated blossoms to produce a single kilo of cured beans. Beans are picked while still green and sold to fermentation plants where workers sort, blanch, steam, and dry the beans in the sun. They are then sorted again, dried in the shade, and fermented while workers continually evaluate their aroma and inspect each bean for quality.

Farmers can get funding from organic or fair trade organisations, but it is difficult to plant more orchids because their farms are often quite small. Even then, it takes four years for those vines to reach maturity.
Scientists are trying to produce more and better substitutes, such as vanillin. For instance, one option would be to engineer yeast to make vanillin from raw materials such as molasses, which contains ferulic acid.  

There’s a fascinating article about the problem, along with the quirky history of the vanilla plantation – and the flavour wheel, used by the food community to track the specific attributes of an ingredient, food, or beverage. One such vanilla wheel measures 29 distinct flavour characteristics grouped into ten main categories: smoky, spicy, botanical, sulphury, sweet, creamy, medicinal, cooked, fatty, and floral.

And just like wine, natural vanilla grown in different places, such as Madagascar, Mexico, or Tahiti, has different taste and potency profiles. Bake Off fans might be interested to know that Madagascar vanilla, typically called Bourbon vanilla, is highly sought for its rummy taste and sweet aroma. 

 I learn something new every day.

Read more here.

Wednesday, 24 August 2016

Orchids in amber

It is known that beetles can pollinate plants, but thanks to new fossil evidence, it seems beetles were pollinating certain orchids in particular a staggering 20 million years ago.

Fossilised amber from the Miocene epoch in Mexico and the Dominican Republic reveal beetles with orchid pollen attached to the thorax.

Scientists know that some beetles use orchids for nectar, but no fossil evidence had been uncovered showing beetles in the distant past pollinating orchids until now.

The first specimen is a 0.4mm long hidden-snout beetle (subfamily Cryptorhynchinae) found in a piece of 20-45 million year old amber from the Dominican Republic. Orchid pollinaria from the Cylindrocites browni can be seen attached to its thorax.

Larvae breed in stems or wood and the adults are known to visit flowers. Cryptorhynchinae were quite diverse in the Dominican amber forest, say experts in the report.

The other specimen was a toe-winged beetle (family Ptilodactylidae) that was found in a piece of 22-26 million year old Mexican amber. This toe-winged beetle (1.4 mm in length) had pollinaria from an orchid described as Annulites mexicana attached to the body.

No current-day hidden-snout beetles have been seen visiting orchid plants, and no current-day toe-winged beetles have been seen with pollinaria.

Another clipping to add the amazing role of orchids in science. 

As I sit here, on a constant vigil to stop beetles eating my patio lilies, I wonder if beetles consumed orchids, too.

Friday, 12 August 2016

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. 

Friday, 29 July 2016

Perils of nature

An open-pit mine is the latest in unlikely locations to host a natural colony of wild orchids. But not for long ... Once again, orchids symbolise the transient nature of landscape change.

Privately-owned wetland Adirondack Park in upstate NY is a wetland is formed of coarse sand left over when granite ore was crushed to extract iron from 1900 until 1978. Bare sand was eventually colonised by moss, lichen, grasses, sedges and trees, including willows, poplars and tamaracks.

As part of this evolutionary process, tiny orchid seeds blew in, and now the wetland is the proud owner of six species of bog orchids, including millions of rose pogonias and grass pinks.

Experts report the variety of fungi that colonise a plant’s root system and enhance its ability to absorb nutrients is partly responsible for the colonisation.

But nature moves on, and the orchids may be a fleeting botanical memory, for the already, an aggressive non-native reed called phragmites is choking out other plants in the area. With the inevitable lack of sunshine, it is expected they will decline.

A classic case of botanical carpe diem.

Wednesday, 27 July 2016

Fitting new look for lady’s slipper orchid

Orchids pop up in so many designs, from wallpaper to food art, that it was a treat to find that one particular specimen appearing on a new coin.

The National Bank of Ukraine has issued the latest coin in its continuing series, “Flora and Fauna of Ukraine” in an inspired project honouring endangered species of plants found in and around the country. The latest issue features the orchid affectionately referred to as Lady’s Slipper, or Cypripedium Calceolus.

Regarded as one of the most famous orchids of the northern hemisphere, the elegant lady’s slipper orchid is said to be named after the footwear of Eastern European footwear.

The slipper-shaped lip traps insects as they are forced to climb up past the staminode, a stem modified to produce nectar.

Experts will also know that, unlike most other orchids, these blooms have two fertile anthers which classifies them as “diandrous”, causing botanists to question whether this clade or group of organisms should be classified within the orchid family, Orchidaceae, or if they should be designated as a separate family altogether, referred to as Cypripediaceae.

Other things you might not know?  It has declined over much of the European part of its range, and as a result is legally protected in a number of countries.

The Norwegian municipality of Snåsa has a Cypripedium calceolus in its coat-of-arms. And finally, in Pavel Ivanovich Melnikov's “In the Forests”, a znakharka (Russian wise woman) calls this Adam’s head, Adam’s grass, and even Cuckoo’s slippers and says the flower is good for every ill including driving away evil spirits.

But back to the coins (ten and two Hryvnia worth 30p and 6p respectively), produced by the Mint of Ukraine, are designed by Volodymyr Demianenko. What makes the two-hryvnia coins particularly stunning is that the obverse of the nickel silver pieces includes a faithfully replicated colour depiction of the lady slipper orchid, with the semi-circular inscription, зозулині черевички справжні, above the primary design, and CYPRIPEDIUM CALCEOLUS L below.

The reverse side includes the Ukrainian crest positioned toward the top with a garland of flowers, and a songbird that surrounds the coin’s denomination.

I am not a numismatologist, but I would find it hard not to keep one of these. I hope it wouldn't be insulting to suggest that it would make delightful charms for a bracelet, necklace or key fob, for example?

Thursday, 21 July 2016

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, 24 June 2016

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.

Thursday, 19 May 2016

Orchid gem

I thought I'd share a delightful orchid post from a blog I follow about Living in Montenegro.

In fact, I first came across it while researching material for the Legends of Liria series inspired by a holiday to this amazing country in question, and have been reading the weekly column ever since.

Despite my orchid fetish, I had no clue it was such a hotbed of wild orchids.

See for yourself. The photographs are super.

I might just have to revisit Montenegro this time next year ...

Friday, 6 May 2016

Focus on wild orchids

Heaven for orchidmaniacs. It's time to get out into the wild and photograph wild orchids to help the National History Museum to help examine what impact climate change is having on the UK’s orchids.

An astonishing 56 native species of orchid grow wild in the UK, flowering from April to September. Recent research indicates that climate change is affecting the flowering time of the early spider orchid, Ophrys sphegodes. Researchers now want to find out if this is true for other wild orchids and whether all species are responding in the same way, starting with 29 species.

They need as many people as possible to photograph orchids this spring and summer, and to send them the images with the date and location.

This is quite a project, for alongside this, they have around 15,000 orchid specimens in the museum’s British and Irish herbarium. Collected over three centuries, they indicate flowering times in the past. Putting all this data together is a huge task, so this is how you can help.

Visit the website and find the guide for how to photograph local orchids and identify photos that other orchidmaniacs have loaded.

Orchids are widespread across the UK and some species are actually quite common. A useful starting point is the Wildlife Trusts ‘40 places to see orchids’.

For orchids further north, try these guide

If you’re worried about the plants being in danger from collectors, the research team felt the risk outweighed the need to protect these beautiful flowers.

Friday, 8 April 2016

Orchidelirium rages still

A grand total of 6,000 orchids celebrate the passion for orchids that reached its peak in the Victorian era, when plant collectors would risk life and limb (literally in the case of Benedikt Roezl) to seek rare blooms.

New Yorkers are treated this year to a spectacular display at the New York Botanical Garden until 17 April in the Enid A. Haupt Conservatory.

A highlight is the massive waterfall, fringed by walls of vivid flowers. I’d be equally in interested in the Wardian Case dispaly, a portable greenhouse invented by Nathaniel Bagshaw Ward that became a must-have piece of kit in its day. 

Visitors can feast their eyes on a bewildering array of orchids, from the speckled Lady’s Slipper to the bright yellow Dancing Ladies and the star-shaped Madagascar that inspired Darwin himself. (Read more in this article I wrote one Christmas.)

And as for Roezl, he supposedly discovered 800 species during his travels in South and Central America, losing a hand during an incident in the jungle, claims an article. Undeterred, he replaced the missing limb with an iron hook and continued as an orchid hunter. He claimed that he was robbed at knifepoint no fewer than 17 times and even fought off a rabid jaguar in the forest.

Orchidelirium is still rife. Modern propagation techniques are resulting in new specimens and orchids are surpassing other species around the world as the most popular house plant. Last year an Emperor orchid sold at auction for $100,000 in the US.

The timing of the exhibition is especially appropriate for me personally, as it marks the anniversary of The Lost Orchid, my historical mystery based on the perilous escapades of plant hunters from the Victorian age.

It is 1885. Flora McPhairson teeters on the abyss of social disgrace but finds sanctuary at the home of her uncle, veteran plant collector-turned hybridiser.
But all is not well at the orchid houses in leafy Warwickshire. Soon Flora is drawn into a notorious world where fortunes are won – and lost – as orchid-mad society clamours for ever more exotic blooms, and ruthless dealers despatch their most determined and cunning plant hunters to the furthest reaches of the Empire.
In this hotbed of intrigue, deceit and danger, dark forces lurk in every shrubbery. Events take an even more sinister turn, and soon Flora and charismatic journalist William Carter find themselves in a deadly battle against ruthless foes as they battle to save the reputation of the nation itself.

Find the book on Amazon and Smashwords

For more about the dangerous world of plant hunters, visit The Lost Orchid blog.

Saturday, 2 April 2016

Art and artifice

Orchids are a conniving species. They lure pollinators by creating clever disguises to mimic food, rivals, or even mates. Bamboozled insects then carry pollen from one flower to another – and so the clever orchid can reproduce.

Scientists have to be similarly cunning to study this ingenious species and have turned to models from a 3D printer. Canny researchers can now show how one particular orchid tricks fungus-seeking flies by mimicking the sight and smell of their favourite mushrooms.

As flowers have so many colours, shapes, and smells, it’s quite a task to specify what parts of a flower are actually attracting pollinators. Scientists are now tackling this problem by using artificial flowers. They add different odours to fake flowers can watch how a pollinator reacts to smell alone. In the past, such flowers were created of paper, cotton balls, or test tubes with cotton wicks.

But now they’ve gone one step further to study the Dracula lafleurii, a lurid specimen found in the cloud forest of Ecuador. (They're similar in their bloodthirsty colouring to the Dracula bella, pictured.) A single petal of this unusual orchid resembles the fungi that live nearby and so attract flies that come along, often to breed on the mushrooms. Imagine trying to ‘origami’ such a complex form, and in the damp forest, the paper would simply disintegrate. Instead, scientists engaged artist Melinda Barnadas to develop a technique for creating artificial Dracula orchids. Now, with the help of 3D-scanning, the team can print 3D gypsum moulds from which they manufacture silicone orchids in whatever colour patterns required.

The team set up the artificial flowers next to actual Dracula orchids in the cloud forest. They modified both the fakes and the real flowers, changing the colours and patterns, and adding or removing scents, according to a report in New Phytologist. They even made several “Frankenstein” flowers, pieced together from artificial and natural flower parts. Then it was time to sit down and watch to witness which blooms got more attention from the flies.

They concluded that orchids wanted a certain look and the right smell. Fake flowers attracted fewer insects than the real blooms. Only when the researchers applied scents from natural orchids were just as many flies attracted to the mimics as to the real flowers.

What a marvellous combination of art, artifice and science. Much like orchids themselves.