Monday, February 10, 2014

Stanhopea whittenii - first blooms

Back in October 2011, I received three small Stanhopea plants as part of an order from Plantae. They've been quietly growing away for the past couple of years. One of them has finally decided to do something "useful" and put out some flowers!

The particular species that has assented to put on a show is Stanhopea whittenii, which is apparently fairly closely related to Stanhopea oculata. Primary differences are in the number of flowers (2-3 as opposed to many more), the shape of the flower and the scent. It was only described just over a decade ago, in 2002.

Speaking of scent, ours (to my nose) smells like menthol-vanilla, particularly heavy on the vanilla, perhaps with a touch of cinnamon. It's mounted quite far above head height, so I've only caught whiffs of it here and there, rather than my usual method which involves a deep inhale right into the flower!

Stanhopea are all very fragrant orchids. Their scent is a cunning ploy to attract their pollinators, a group of tropical bees called Euglossine bees, sometimes commonly known as "orchid bees" for this behaviour. The males of these bees seek out various strongly scented substances to impress their females - I guess it's the bee equivalent of a nice Eau de Cologne, except instead of buying a bottle, you have to zoom around the forest gathering your own essential oils first! These mostly solitary bees are generally spectacular metallic colours, in green, blue and gold livery; they also commonly visit Catasetum, which I covered briefly in my previous post. These chemicals are, for the most part (but not always), quite pleasant to humans too, and Stanhopea generally produce them in copious, room-filling abundance. Almost all of these orchids flower by sending a spike downwards (through the potting medium); for this reason, they're almost always grown in baskets of various sorts, or mounted, so this flowering habit can be accommodated. If you have the room, and suitable cultural conditions, they're well worth the effort.

In terms of cultural conditions, apparently they like "breezy" conditions, and [very (>3000 foot candles, no direct sun)] bright light - perhaps the move outdoors into severe winds covered the "breezy" part of their cultural preferences, and the light certainly increased; being outdoors, I tend to water more - and moisture is a key part of their cultural needs... Sadly, the flowers are typically short lived (typically in the region of only three all too short days) but in that time they certainly pump out some fragrance!

The best article I found on this species is here, and covers its discovery and naming and has various additional pictures and information on distribution; IOSPE has a page too as does Wikipedia. The genus Stanhopea and the derivation of its name is extensively covered here. Cultural information is covered here and here. Essence of Stanhopea is an orchid blog from Australia that covers this genus extensively.

Pictures, I hear you cry? Certainly!

Stanhopea whittenii plant and buds
Stanhopea whittenii buds, 5/2/2014
You can see it gets some morning sun, but is protected for the rest of the day by the roof and garage.
Stanhopea whittenii buds
Stanhopea whittenii buds - two days later (7/2/2014)
Stanhopea whittenii flowers
Stanhopea whittenii
Two days later they opened
(this is from today [10/2/2014], the day after they first opened) 
Stanhopea whittenii flowers
Stanhopea whittenii
You can clearly see the big black blotches that might have confused people into classifying these as Stanhopea oculata.
Stanhopea whittenii flowers
Stanhopea whittenii
View from underneath
Stanhopea are sometimes known as "upside down" orchids as their flowers usually face downwards
Stanhopea whittenii flowers
Stanhopea whittenii
lateral view
Pictures from cellphone camera.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

Darwin and the Lost Art of the Naturalist - and Orchids

Earlier this week, I had a "guest post" published on the travel/ocean science blog Moving Sushi, entitled "Darwin and the Lost Art of the Naturalist", in which I briefly sketch out some of the problems with modern science and how we need to cultivate not only excellent science communicators, but a new skill-set that allows us to draw together and interpret all the many scientific discoveries and ongoing monitoring to deliver meaningful knowledge to society at large. Or is it really the return of an old skill-set - the naturalist? You can read it over at Moving Sushi; it's a little shorter than I might have liked (they gave me a word limit to stick to!).

In it, I rather briefly mention Darwin's interest in orchids. Seeing as I have a blog on that subject, I thought it might make an interesting post...

Darwin devoted significant research to this group of plants, as you can see over at Darwin Online, which freely publishes much of Darwin's work online in electronic format. In particular, his interest was in how orchids are fertilised (in the wild), which is indeed a fascinating topic. He spent around 10 months of his time absorbed solely by that subject, which ultimately culminated in a book, On the various contrivances by which British and foreign orchids are fertilised by insects, and on the good effects of intercrossing, which was published after his most famous work. In it, he adds further weight to his concepts around the necessity for sexual reproduction to maintain "fitness" -  remember, he made these intellectual connections without any knowledge of genes or DNA:
"THE object of the following work is to show that the contrivances by which Orchids are fertilised, are as varied and almost as perfect as any of the most beautiful adaptations in the animal kingdom; and, secondly, to show that these contrivances have for their main object the fertilisation of each flower. In my volume 'On the Origin of Species' I have given only general reasons for my belief that it is apparently a universal law of nature that organic beings require an occasional cross with another individual; or, which is almost the same thing, that no hermaphrodite fertilises itself for a perpetuity of generations. Having been blamed for propounding this doctrine without giving ample facts, for which I had not, in that work, sufficient space, I wish to show that I have not spoken without having gone into details.

I have been led to publish this little treatise separately, as it has become inconveniently large to be incorporated with the rest of the discussion on the same subject. And I have thought, that, as Orchids are universally acknowledged to rank amongst the most singular and most modified forms in the vegetable kingdom, the facts to be presently given might lead some observers to look more curiously into the habits of our several native species. An examination of their many beautiful contrivances will exalt the whole vegetable kingdom in most persons' estimation. I fear, however, that the necessary details will be too minute and complex for any one who has not a strong taste for Natural History. This treatise affords me also an opportunity of attempting to show that the study of organic beings may be as interesting to an observer who is fully convinced that the structure of each is due to secondary laws, as to one who views every trifling detail of structure as the result of the direct interposition of the Creator."
Charles Darwin (1862)  On the various contrivances by which British and foreign orchids are fertilised by insects, and on the good effects of intercrossing. London: John Murray pp1-2.

In particular, he was taken in by the extraordinary flowers of the Catasetinae, which to those who are not "orchid geeks" might be unfamiliar - they possess remarkable "hair trigger" mechanisms which effectively "shoot" the pollinator with their polinnia after they touch the mechanism. It's really quite amazing:

Another of the key findings in the book was a prediction - a hallmark of good science:
"I fear that the reader will be wearied, but I must say a few words on the Angræcum sesquipedale, of which the large six-rayed flowers, like stars formed of snow-white wax, have excited the admiration of travellers in Madagascar. A whip-like green nectary of astonishing length hangs down beneath the labellum. In several flowers sent me by Mr. Bateman I found the nectaries eleven and a half inches long, with only the lower inch and a half filled with very sweet nectar. What can be the use, it may be asked, of a nectary of such disproportional length? We shall, I think, see that the fertilisation of the plant depends on this length and on nectar being contained only within the lower and attenuated extremity. It is, however, surprising that any insect should be able to reach the nectar: our English sphinxes have probosces as long as their bodies: but in Madagascar there must be moths with probosces capable of extension to a length of between ten and eleven inches!"
Emphasis is mine. Indeed, some time later (1903), this very beast was discovered, initially named Xanthopan morgani praedicta Rothschild & Jordan, 1903. Indeed, fellow "co-inventor" (whose letter on the subject spurred Darwin to get around to publishing his most famous work) of the theory of evolution, and entomologist extraordinare, Alfred Russel Wallace, suggested that it would be a hawkmoth, noting the existence of a moth with a proboscis almost long enough in East Africa; this species and the one from Madagascar are currently considered the same species Xanthopan morgani (Walker 1856). Wikipedia has an article on the beast. And there's also this video:
Darwin also made an interesting observation that such tightly co-evolved species ultimately depend on each other:
"If such great moths were to become extinct in Madagascar, assuredly the Angræcum would become extinct. "
And indeed, this is a great threat for many such co-dependent species, and one of the many reasons in situ conservation is (wherever possible) always better than captive breeding of the last few of some endangered rarity. 

We have an Angraecum sesquipedale - it nearly flowered once... Angraecum longicalcar (which we don't yet have) has an even longer spur - up to 40cm. Somewhere out there in Madagascar must be a moth with an even more impressive "business end"! These interesting relationships are further explored in a 1991 paper by Gene Kritsky, published in American Entomologist, available here.

I won't cover the rest of the book - if this has piqued your interest, you can of course read it yourself!

Friday, February 7, 2014

Not so much "balcony" any more... and other tales.

At the end of November last year, Senior Management and I moved home, from flat-with-a-balcony to house-with-a-garden. This now somewhat negates the title of this blog, but I don't see why that can't just be the name of the blog anyway - it's where this madness started - so I'm keeping it! :)

Orchids... in a garden.
So, for the last two months, the orchids have been slumming it in temporary accommodation along the side of the garage. The first few days were certainly a learning experience. Strong winds and neighbourhood cats took their toll on the potted plants, with plenty found on the ground looking very sad. Fortunately, there have been very few casualties from the move so far, and some of the plants seem to have responded quite well to their more "natural" environment, increased air movement and of course, more light.

We addressed the cats and wind with a combination of hastily erected shadecloth windbreaks, tying pots to shelves with gardening "twist ties" or wire and repotting into heavier (clay) pots with rocks at the bottom. So far it seems to be working.
Orchids in a garden (well, along a wall next to a garden, anyway)
The contraption to the left with all the mounts is an old folding clothes horse used for drying clothes, we re-purposed it for orchids by hanging it from a pole above the roofing beams. Cable ties!
Note the piles of potting mix scattered here and there...
The shadecloth windbreak barriers can be seen to the left and right (white "cloth").

One of the nice "pluses" of this particular home is that it has a 1,500l rainwater tank in the back garden, which cuts right back on the number of trips I do every week to buy R/O water for the plants (and fish) to make up for the terrible quality of the local municipal water.

Of course, this little town in Africa gets a bit chilly for most of our plants, so we've been turning our attention to what will happen in a month or two when the weather takes a turn toward the chilly. Senior Management decreed that a greenhouse was the best solution, and I'm not arguing that point!

So, we've bought a greenhouse from Easy Greenhouses, a 8'x12' (about 2.59x3.83 meters) Rion plastic affair; Easy Greenhouses calls the model they sell a "Grand Gardener 46", but it seems to be a sort of hybrid between Rion's "Prestige" and "Grand Gardener" range in terms of features. The extra vents this model offers over some of the less costly models will certainly make a difference under that hot African sun!

Senior Management ponders the future spot for the greenhouse.
The amount of digging involved will be... painful.
Of course, installing this thing will now take quite some preparation to get into the ground and erected, and the appropriate services (particularly power) safely out to the spot where we'll erect it. There's currently a massive pile of boxes in our garage, pending clearing out the "vegetable patch" where it will live, levelling of the ground and installation of the plastic foundation. And of course, the construction of a suitable trench and laying of suitable conduit to carry power and some low voltage electronics (aka ethernet cables and security system cables) down there (in separate conduits for the mains and low voltage stuff, naturally!). Because, really, how can a greenhouse not have 1) power 2) internets 3) the option to not have all your plants going "walkies"?
Well, quite a few boxes...
The serious purpose for the ethernet is monitoring conditions in the greenhouse with the InterSeptor. I haven't decided whether I'll put the main body down there or just the sensor - in any case, because pulling cables is a major pain, I'll have two ethernet cables going down there anyway. (One of the many things I do at work is networking, and I know how to do structured cabling for LANs. Of course, I'd love the outside link to be fiber, but that's a bit over the top). I'm leaning more toward leaving the main body in the house as it's then going to be on the UPS.

I'll be sure to keep you all updated on the progress of the greenhouse build, and I should really do some updates on the status of some of the plants...!

Pictures from cellphone camera.