Tuesday, April 19, 2011

EPOS Meeting, April 2011. Eastern Cape Orchids... And the winner is...

This month's EPOS meeting on Thursday last week was on Eastern Cape Orchids. The speaker, Cameron McMaster, was initially somewhat worried that given the fairly impressive size of most of the blooms on the plant table, the society's members might find the orchid treasures of the Eastern Cape a little pedestrian, if not boring. Of course, that was far from the case...

Mr McMaster is mainly an enthusiast of South Africa's extensive bulbous plant flora (and he runs an African Bulb Nursery) and offers wildflower tours. He clearly spends a lot of time rambling around the countryside, camera in hand taking pictures of South Africa's rich and diverse botanical heritage in some spectacular scenery. Whilst not quite as impressive as the orchid flora of some more tropical places, the Eastern Cape (and South Africa in general) has an impressively rich (if often quite modestly sized) orchid flora, most of which are terrestrial. He several nice picture galleries on his site, including a South African orchid one. I'd include some pictures here, but he prefers not to have his images borrowed - so head on over to his site if you'd like to see them. The talk we saw had even more pictures of even more species! After seeing and hearing about orchids from the length and breadth of the Eastern Cape's summer rainfall dominated orchid flora, he paused (after a surprisingly speedy hour or so!) and asked if we might like to see some winter rainfall (Western Cape) orchid species... Well, that's like offering children sweets - no one is going to turn that down, so we then had a further trip through some of the Western Cape's orchid flora!
Bartholina burmannianaA Western Cape species.
Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens, 2001

During the talk, many of the members noted that they had seen this or that species here or there - usually with a tragic tale that the population had been fairly recently extirpated either by road construction or other construction work. It seems somewhat strange that it's illegal to dig up a wild plant threatened with destruction and move it somewhere else (in the wild, let alone in your garden), but not illegal to bulldoze it into the ground and cover it in concrete. Mr McMaster noted that in Australia, rare plants are actually marked out so they can be avoided by road crews. I also read the final chapter in Eric Hansen's Orchid Fever about some people in the USA that move endangered slipper orchids (legally). These approaches don't yet seem to have reached the consciousness of local bodies responsible for conservation - indeed, Mr McMaster noted the tragically accelerating loss of South Africa's globally significant plant biodiversity (primarily through changing land use practices and spreading urbanisation) - not much seems to be happening and pleas to such bodies fall on deaf ears.

I can only imagine that in a short while, the only rich habitats will be in scattered wilderness reserves and on the few patches of private land where farmers manage their land in ways that don't damage the flora. I understand the difficulties in policing something like wildflower relocations (and making sure that allowing that doesn't lead to a corresponding increase in poaching), but there must be a way of conducting such "rescue operations" in a sensible and effective manner, perhaps though nature conservation bodies (provincial or national) overseeing volunteer bodies such as botanical societies relocating rare or otherwise endangered plants from place to place.

Senior Management wondered why we couldn't just grow up lots and lots of plants in captivity and "release" them into the wild; my immediate concern was "flooding" wild populations with a huge influx of relatively limited genetic diversity "captive bred" plants. The same thing is problematic in wild animals too - for example, escaping farmed salmon have become so common that they have started to overshadow wild populations along the western seaboard of the USA, particularly in Canada and in Europe. This is not insignificant; around two million salmon escape annually in Europe, against a wild population of around 4 million! Things could go quite poorly for the wild salmon... One of the things you learn about when you take an interest in evolutionary biology is just how much of a role "chance" plays in what genes end up "on top" in the gene pool - and so taking just a few parent plants, tenderly caring for their progeny and then "flooding" wild populations could really mess things up. Remember that many orchid species produce millions of minute seeds, of which one or two might naturally make it to adulthood; rearing them in flasks massively increases the numbers that make it through to adulthood. How well will those plants, which have had a cosseted youth, sheltered from extremes of climate, pests and diseases do in the long term? And their offspring? Of course, there may be times when that is the only option left (when there are no wild plants, or they become incredibly rare) - but whilst there is a reasonable profusion of them left, I think it would be better to "save the species" by moving it, rather than farming it (or waiting until we have to keep the last few grimly hanging on "life support" in a greenhouse). Genetic diversity is the equivalent of a well-shuffled deck of cards - you have more of a chance of countering new (and existing) challenges head-on (and winning) than you would if everyone had the same cards every time, or only a few cards that made pretty poor hands!

Anyway, enough of a rant about the state of the world today, and just how much of a tight-rope we must walk with conservation and development!

The other news of the evening was that our Rhynchostylis coelestis won "Best Species" on the plant table against what I thought was some pretty stiff competition, including an absolutely enormous specimen Dendrochilum, owned by Stan Wedge. We took home a wine glass engraved with EPOS' emblem as our prize. YAY! Of course, this isn't an officially SAOC judged event, so it doesn't get any actual Award, but we were very proud "plant parents" that evening! Some people on Orchid Board asked how I got such great flower spikes on it - I'd have to claim sheer luck to be honest. People seemed genuinely intrigued by the plant; it doesn't seem that obscure a species, but clearly, Senior Management's eye can detect superior plant matter from across a crowded greenhouse - even when it is not in flower! One of the experienced members commented that I should give him a piece of the plant, should I ever divide it - clearly, it's Good Stuff(tm). I also enquired whether it might need to be moved into a larger basket (the one it's in is pretty crowded) but apparently, it's better left where it is for several more years. My reading indicates these plants really hate being re-potted, so that seems like sage wisdom!

As this post has been a bit Spartan with pictures, I'll leave you with some shots I took of the Rhynchostylis the morning after the meeting:
Rhynchostylis coelestis

As usual, you can click on the images if you'd like a closer view.

And of course the guest speaker found out that no matter how fanatical EPOS's members might be about their more exotic blooms, most of us still appreciate the extensive bounty that naturally exists right on our doorstep!

p.s. another really great resource for South African Orchids is on PlantZAfrica.