Another slipper

One beautiful orchid may just be. Two set you thinking. The orchid house of Lloyd Botanical Garden in Darjeeling was filled with flowers of two species of Venus slippers, the genus Paphiodedilum. I showed photos of P. insigne some time ago. You can see here the similar shaped flowers of the Paphiopedilum villosum that grew cheek by jowl with it in the greenhouse. I was startled to find later that this genus has 70 to 80 known species. The genus seems to have originated between 5 and 7 million years ago in a geographical region called the Sundaland, which is the Indonesian and Philippine islands and the Malay peninsula. The present range of these slipper orchids extends southwards to New Guinea, and northwards to Southern China and eastern India.

The late Miocene was a time when the earth’s climate was changing rapidly. With a lot of the ocean’s waters locked into ice, the Sunda islands could have been joined by land bridges, allowing the earliest of these orchids to slip across the land. The great flowering, so to say, of species in this genus began about 5 million years ago, in the early Pliocene, when the waters rose again, splitting the land into islands. By then the increasing height of the Himalayas and the closing of the Tethys seaway had changed the global climate (incidentally causing large evolutionary changes among our ancestors) and the slippers evolved into humidity-loving species.

The climate and conditions in the core areas of Venus slipper diversity do not seem so different from each other; after all they have similar temperatures and humidity. But the many of these orchids have found extremely specialized niches in the ecology: some growing only on cliffs near the sea, others, like these Assamese species, in very humid rainforests high in mountains.

Interestingly, the actual process of evolution in these plants has also been studied. The genome of these orchids seems to be highly fragile, and repair mechanisms have created the variation needed for speciation. The evolution of these slippers is still ongoing in the wild. This could also explain why the slipper orchids are popular among orchid enthusiasts who love to create hybrids. That would be an interestingly complete story, if a geneticist actually bothers to study these hybrid varieties of slippers.

Splendid slippers

A Latin mouthful, Paphiopedilum insigne, translates to splendid slipper orchid. That’s the name of this attractive orchid that I saw in the Lloyd Botanical Garden in Darjeeling. Later reading told me that when the 19th century botanical pirates introduced the orchid to Europe its popularity immediately created a huge demand for specimens. The result was that the colonial enterprise put a bounty on the plant, creating what was almost a gold rush. This has almost wiped out the plant from its natural habitat, which is the northeastern part of India, bordering Myanmar and the northeastern part of Bangladesh. IUCN classes this plant as critically endangered and others find field data to be inadequate to study anything about the natural history of the plant, since it has vanished from all but one or two spots.

This told me what an important role botanical gardens play in this world which is facing a critical loss of species. The splendid slipper orchid is the type specimen for the whole genus Paphiopedilum, the slipper orchids. Darjeeling’s botanical garden not only maintains a stock of the species, and participates in many scientific studies, but also replenishes local nurseries. This market linkage was set up as part of the colonial exploitation of Himalayan ecology, but now it has evolved into a more urgent role. The botanical gardens and their links to the market keep the remaining refugia of the orchid fairly safe by supplying the demands of the “orchid enthusiasts” who are responsible for the catastrophic loss of all natural sources of the genus. On the other hand, some argue that by feeding the market, they ensure that the supply of “orchid enthusiasts” is perpetually regenerated. You are free to pick a side in this debate.

Checkered Vanda

You do all kinds of things to fight boredom while you wait silently for a sleeping tiger to raise its head and look at you. We’d seen the back of one as it settled down in a little grassy hollow late in the morning. There was almost no chance that it would give us a sighting, but everyone decided to wait. Bored, I looked up. And spotted the orchid Checkered Vanda (Vanda tessellata) flowering overhead. It is widely used in folk medicine, and known to be neuro-active. I’ve heard stories of its use as a mild hallucinogen in old folk religion. It was too high up for me to try. Interesting that they flower in the heat of late May in Kanha NP. Big flowers, I thought, growing in clusters. I looked around. There didn’t seem to be another bunch of them around. It hadn’t kept me distracted for even half an hour. Back to the fruitless wait for the tiger.

This post appears on schedule while I travel.

Golden flowers fill your eyes

Green and gold caught my eyes as we drove in the damp heat of the early afternoon through Manas National Park. It may be early spring in astronomical terms, with the days still getting longer, but as seasons are counted in these eastern foothills of Assam, it was high summer. Monsoon was less than a month away. Most trees had already shed their spring leaves, and had begun to flower. But was this the flower of the tree?

I had to tear my eyes away from the lovely flowers to take in a larger picture. Did the leaves and flower actually grow from the tree? They were carried on rather thin woody stalks. But would such thin stalks ever grow directly from the main trunk of a tree? Normally a trunk branches multiple times before you come to leaf-bearing or flower-bearing stalks.

Pull back a little further. It becomes clearer. No the flowers do not belong to the tree. It is a silk cotton tree (Ceiba pentandra, earlier Bombax ceiba). In this place it is late in its flowering season. Some of the smaller trees are still flowering, some are fruiting, some are still releasing their lovely silky parachutes into the air, but giants like this are past all that and are already prepared for the monsoon. The flowers are orchids growing over the tree. A little search, and you find that they are golden-flowered dendrobium (Dendrobium chrysanthum). Orchids are said not to harm the trees they grow on. They have green leaves, so they produce their own sugars. Their roots are said to penetrate only the bark of the tree. It is said that they don’t tap into the wood. I wonder then where they get water from? Roots of plants which grow into soil search widely for water. It seems that orchids specialize in pulling moisture from the air.

I pull back further. The whole jungle is full of trees carrying various kinds of orchids. Many are flowering. Something clicks into place. I’ve seen flowering orchids in the Himalayas during winter, when it often rains. Now, here in the plains below the mountains, I see them just before the monsoon. They flower when the air is damp. Most plants require a lot of stored sugar and water for their flowers and fruits. That’s what is happening here, in this hot damp place. The flowers will fruit and produce their wind-borne seeds at about the time the monsoon winds begin to blow. On this vast scale, I begin to admire the small orchids, the large trees, and the vast jungle and the climate they are in. They shape each other.

Four wild orchids

Jenkins’ dendrobium (Dendrobium jenkinsii) hugged the shady side of a tree trunk, but stood out bright in the hot sun of the early afternoon. It was just a few days past holi, and as always, the hot season had us in its grip. Our open jeeps left us dusty, hot, and terribly uncomfortable. It was high summer in Manas NP; the rains were expected in two or three weeks. I was a little puzzled by this wild orchid of Assam. If this was not D. jenkinsii, it must be D. lindleyii, and both are said to grow at higher altitudes, not at the 50 to 100 meters that we were cruising. The leaves, the details of the flower, the tree-hugging habit were all correct though. If you have a solution to the puzzle, let me know.

On the next tree was another set of blooms: a similar cluster of yellow flowers growing on the shadier side of the tree. But when I looked again, they were different. The leaves were longer, and the flowers were clearly different in form. Also, these were hanging from trees, not hugging them. The leaves were not intermixed with the flowers, but they seemed to grow on opposite sides of the main stem. A search through an index told me that these are Dendrobium chrysanthum (golden-flowered dendrobium). Strangely enough, they are said to grow at an altitude of above 300 meters. I can’t believe that I was on ground that no botanist has ever visited. After all, these were the hunting grounds of the Victorian British plant hunters who transformed the gardens of the western world by almost destroying the natural vegetation of the Himalayas. We live in a world where the destroyers of the environment do not take responsibility for nursing the earth back to health.

A few tens of meters further along the road, hooded orchids (Dendrobium aphyllum) hung in long streamers from a tree, ending a few meters above ground. Fortunately, a tree behind it had not shed all its leaves, and I could get a partially dark background against which I could photograph the blooms. The pale yellow funnel of the labella, with the purple streaks of “runways” leading to the nectar made the identification fairly unambiguous. And fortunately there was no confusion this time; the orchid is said to grow at these heights.

Elsewhere I’d glimpsed a jumble of stems growing out of a tree a few meters above ground, and not realized that I was looking at an orchid. The Family noticed two flowers and realized that they were orchids. It is likely to be the shoe-lip dendrobium (Dendrobium crepidatum), which is again said to grow at an altitude of above 600 meters. Finding these higher altitude orchids at near sea level presents a neat puzzle. The Manas NP of Assam is a continuation of the Royal Manas NP of Bhutan, which starts at a height of 2700 meters above sea level. In our days the extensive old forests of the Himalayas are fragmented into these biosphere reserves. Perhaps plants which would normally have spread laterally at a fixed altitude now are forced to try to spread vertically, and at these lower elevations we see the outliers of a few hardier species which are not strongly restricted by climate. After all, the four orchids that I saw here have been domesticated and are widely available across the world to orchid enthusiasts. We don’t know how many species are completely lost with the loss of forests.

Hallow e’en

As the cold settles in on northern Germany it is easy to understand the idea of Hallow e’en. The celebration of spookiness was not a big thing in this part of the world, but masks and lanterns are now beginning to catch on. If your mind is primed by such ideas, then it is easy to notice cobwebs and old stone walls. The swaying of branches and rustling of leaves holds little fear in cities full of people. But one can see the prey caught in a spider’s web, the silent flight of an owl, the scurry of a dormouse through fallen leaves, and imagine what people in a different age may have felt.


I’m more enchanted by hothouse orchids which I saw in this season, growing in a nice warm room away from the blustery wind. If you have a halloweened mind, you could see ghosts and flying bats in them. There’s something for everyone in this dark season before the winter markets start.

Today Germany is celebrating the 500th anniversary of what is called the Reformation in Europe, the anniversary of Martin Luther nailing his 95 theses to the door of the church in the castle of Wittenberg. This led eventually to a Europe-wide religious war which lasted for a century, and a peace signed in Westphalia which divided the continent. More on this later.

Downhill ride

Our time in Bhutan was coming to an end. We checked out of our hotel in Bumthang and spent the day driving to Lobeysa, a long drive. We passed again through the mixed forest on the way down, catching glimpses of the wonderfully greenish-blue Verditer Flycatchers (Eumyias thalassinus), black drongos with their forked tails (Dicurcus macrocercus) and the bright colours of Scarlet Minivets (Pericrocotus speciosus),

Unidentified ground orchid, Bhutan

On our way up, we’d seen that there was no food on the road, so this time we packed lunch. When we stopped to eat we saw this interesting orchid poking out of the ground next to the road. I have no identification. Can anyone help?

A strange caterpillar, Bhutan

At another stop we saw what looked like a piece of fungus growing on a stone (highlighted in the photo above). Then suddenly it began to move like a caterpillar, its body hunching in the little waves that propel a caterpillar forward. Before I could change the setting on my camera to take a video, the primitive animal had disappeared into a crack in the stone. What a marvellous piece of camouflage. I guess that this was the larva of a Geometrid moth.

Dendrobium fimbriatum orchid, Bhutan

Then as we came lower we entered a zone of the forest full of Dendrobium fimbriatum orchids growing on trees. We probably caught them at the end of their flowering season, but they were spectacularly in bloom along kilometres of the road. We wondered how we’d missed seeing them on the way up. They are fairly common and can be found in many parts of India, the Himalayas, and south-east Asia. Still, it takes unspoiled forests of the kind that exist in Bhutan for it to bloom so spectacularly. Bhutan is estimated to have around 500 species of orchids, so we scarcely observed the surface of this immense diversity.

Many years later I came across the wonderful travel book called The Riddle of The Tsangpo Gorges by Frank Kingdom Ward which describes the flora of Tibet and the eastern Himalayas. As I begin to end the description of our trip through Bhutan nine years ago, the wonderful first line of the book comes to mind: “I have often observed that no matter how much I read about a foreign land before visiting it, I find by experience that it differs widely from what I expected.”

Walking through Kandawgyi gardens

The sprawling 425 acres of the Kandawgyi botanical garden is one of the best places to spend your time in the British era hill station called Pyin Oo Lwin. It was founded by the British Army colonel May and called Maymyo (May’s town). The summer capital of Raj-era Burma remained one of the favourite spots of army generals, so the town has been kept manicured and clean, but renamed. We saw amazing things here: a Hoolock Gibbon in the open (featured photo) and Takins (a Himalayan goat-antelope). Everything we saw here could also be seen in India, but you’ll have to travel to the wilds, and be lucky, to see them.

A meandering walk through a garden is a quiet and peaceful way to spend your time, so look through the photos below at your leisure, without my chatter to break the peace.

A common crow butterfly in Pyin Oo Lwin
A spider resting on a wall in Kandawgyi garden in Pyin Oo Lwin
Hornbill in the Kandawgyi garden in Pyin Oo Lwin
Spider in a web
Takin in Kandawgyi gardens in Pyin Oo Lwin
View over the lake in Kandawgyi garden in Pyin Oo Lwin
Orange fungus in the Kandawgyi garden of Pyin Oo Lwin
Venusta spider in Kandawgyi garden in Pyin Oo Lwin
An orchid flower in the Kandawgyi garden in Pyin Oo Lwin in Myanmar
A wild orchid in the Kandawgyi garden in Pyin Oo Lwin
A pheasant in the Kandawgyi garden in Pyin Oo Lwin
A leopard butterfly in kandawgyi garden in Pyin Oo Lwin

The Sessa Orchidarium

orc2The Sessa Orchidarium is not hard to spot. On our way up from Bhalukpong we’d seen it on the right flank of the highway just after passing through Tipi, and marked it down as something for later. On the way down we saw again the gate above which is a large board which says "Sessa Orchidarium". Although we were fairly sure that November is not a time when orchids flower, we visited it because it was so easy to spot.

We drove in. There was a ticket booth, but it was not manned. The gate was open, and we drove through to the parking lot. The person selling the ticket arrived when we were about to leave. Near the parking lot was a map of the Orchidarium.

The place is large. There are many sections with naturally growing orchids. In the wild we had seen orchids growing on large trees. One part of the grounds was full of these trees. When I walked among them I saw orchids growing; very few of them were flowering. It would have been nice to know more about them, and I wished this section was labelled and had more information.

orc3The locations of greenhouses were marked on the site map. We walked on to one. It was standing open. Until now we had seen no one. Now we spotted someone walking past. He stopped when we asked him where we could go, and he indicated the open door. Inside were the usual spectacular hybrid varieties. We saw many Cattleya. This was a little bit of a surprise, because the genus Cattleya is not found in the wild in these regions.

orc1Orchids are special enough that we spent a while walking slowly through the aisles. Few flowers were in bloom, but the ones which were looked lovely. It seemed to me that we had seen most of them before. At this time of the year the greenhouse was pleasant but not spectacular. I think it will be a riot of blooms in April or May. Unfortunately, even in the hothouse, labelling was minimal. If each plant had been labelled, we could have looked up information on it with our phone as we walked through.

When we emerged, the place was still deserted. We could have walked into other fields and other greenhouses, but the story would have been similar. It was hard to be enthusiastic about the Orchidarium in winter, especially as there was no information on what we were seeing. Clearly there is a laudable effort to cultivate and preserve. Since this place calls itself a research centre, one has the feeling that this part of the work is being done with some enthusiasm. But it also invites public participation, always a good thing for scientists to do. A little more thought given to educating the public about orchids would have been very welcome. The Family and I are determined to go back, and the next time we will try to go in the company of a botanist who knows about the local orchids.