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.