Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for the ‘Orchids’ Category

The Orchid Hunter: A Young Botanist’s Search for Happiness, Leif Bersweden (Short Books 2017)

Was this book inspired by Patrick Barkham’s excellent The Butterfly Isles (2010), in which the author sets out to see all native species of British butterfly in a single year? I assume so. It has a similar premise — “52 species of wild British orchid… one summer to find them all” — and contains a similar mixture of natural history and autobiography. But The Orchid Hunter is a good book in its own right and maybe Barkham was inspired by a find-against-time book I don’t know about.

Either way, if you read both books they’ll enrich and illuminate each other. Butterflies and orchids are both eye-catching, but orchids are much stranger in their subtler, stiller, photosynthetic way. One of the chapter headings here is a quote from the great orchidologist Jocelyn Brooke: “There is, about all orchids, something rather perverse and ambiguous, something even a trifle sinister.” (ch. 10, “The Curse of the Coralroot”, pg. 179) You can see that particularly well in an orchid that doesn’t, in fact, photosynthesize:

The Bird’s-nest Orchid is one of the weirdest plants I’ve ever seen. Completely brown, it appears at first glance to be dead, but a closer examination proves otherwise. Each flower is velvety caramel and has two feet that look as if they’ve been drawn by children: big, clumsy and sticking out sideways. Some plants are still in bud, looking like bizarre trees covered in peanuts. This orchid never produces chlorophyll – the green pigment used in photosynthesis to help produce sugars […] (“Swords of the Hampshire Hangers”, pg. 110)

Instead, Bird’s-nest Orchids, Neottia nidus-avis, parasitize an underground fungus that’s a symbiont of beeches and other trees: “One end of the fungus is attached to the tree, receiving carbon produced by photosynthesis; the other end is attached to the orchid, which is siphoning off this carbon.” Leif Bersweden calls the orchids “outlaws, sneaky thieves who execute their criminality with perfection.” But you could say that the original thief is the tree, whose branches and leaves steal the sun from the sky of smaller plants that try to grow beneath it. Because the Bird’s-nest Orchid isn’t dependent on sunlight, it can grow in the deepest shade.

So can the Ghost Orchid, Epipogium aphyllum, which is a fungus-feeding sciophile that’s even stranger than its relative. But it’s called the Ghost Orchid not just because it’s pale and haunts the shadows, but also because it’s elusive, short-lived and “seldom reappears in the same spot” (pg. 308). Bersweden went “Ghost Hunting”, as he puts it in the title of chapter 18, but the Ghost Orchid got away. He doesn’t succeed in finding one and Epipogium aphyllum is missing from the “Gallery of Gotchas” in the photo section. If it had been there, it still might not have been the strangest orchid on display. It certainly wouldn’t have been the most salacious:

Early Spider Orchids are one of the four species of the genus Ophrys that can regularly be found growing in Britain, the others being Bee, Fly and Late Spider. Their flowers are remarkably insect-like and have a fascinating, yet diabolical sex life. While most plants attract pollinators with the promise of nectar, these orchids lure them in with the promise of bee sex. This deception is accomplished by imitating the scent, appearance and texture of virgin female bees. (“Shakespeare’s Long Purples”, pp. 34-5)

You could say that the Ophrys orchids manufacture floral sex-dolls. Male bees are drawn in by the “alluring female scents”, fooled by the appearance and feel of the flower, and attempt “to mate with the ‘female’, often vigorously and for long periods.” In the process, the male bee acquires “two tiny, sticky pollen sacs”, which he’ll carry off to another Ophrys sex-doll when he gets tired of humping his present partner. At least, that’s what the Ophrys intends. Not that intention is the right word: this botanic deception was created blindly and slowly by natural selection. But nervous systems were definitely involved. And perhaps consciousness was too. The male bees have to smell, see and feel the floral sex-doll, which must have been fine-tuned over evolutionary history to become a better and better mimic of a buxom mate.

The nervous systems of insects and other animals have had a decisive influence on the evolution of mindless plants. Most flowers use shape, scent and colour not to fool insects, but to invite them to a draught of nectar or munch of pollen: “Within minutes of the sun dropping below the horizon, the orchids release an overpowering fragrance into the warm evening air that moths find irresistible” (“Finding the Fragrants”, pg. 201) That’s the Chalk Fragrant Orchid, Gymnadenia conopsea, which grows on “calcareous soils” in the south of England.

Each species of orchid has its own preferences of light, moisture and soil chemistry. Sometimes they’re very particular preferences. This book is almost as much about geology and meteorology as it is about botany. When the cover says “52 species of wild British orchid”, it really does mean “British”. Bersweden visits all five nations of the British Isles, travelling as far south as the Isle of Wight, as far north as the Outer Hebrides to find and photograph orchids, and as far west as the Atlantic coast of Ireland, where he searches for Early Purple Orchids, Orchis mascula, on the Burren, a “barren sea of pale limestone” rising “lunar and desolate, in the north of County Clare.”

At least, it looks barren and desolate from afar. Appearances are deceptive, as one of the best passages in the book reveals. I think it’s an excellent encapsulation of the appeal not just of botany but of natural history in general:

There were plants everywhere. Every crack in the limestone was sprouting green. Common bird’s-foot trefoil, rue-leaved saxifrage, heath dog-violets, milkworts and hawthorn. The snowy-white flowers of mountain everlasting sprang from the pavement, spring gentians bejewelled the grass with an electric blue, and I was left speechless by the sheer number of Early Purple orchids. There were thousands of them, speckling the slope.

Lying down on my stomach, I gazed greedily into a deep crevice and encountered a miniature jungle. Hundreds of plants thronged every crack and root-hold. There were plantains, crane’s-bills, ferns, trefoils and saxifrages. Mosses and liverworts encased the smooth limestone, tiny sporophytic stalks peering upwards like periscopes. They grew over and under one other, making it difficult to distinguish one plant from the next. This was chaotic, unadulterated wilderness. (“Stumped by Ireland’s Mediterranean Orchid”, pg. 52)

You can almost see the plants and feel the limestone beneath your feet. And the plant-names, common and scientific, are almost as rich and strange as the reality. Biology is about nomenclature, not just about nature. As the sub-title of this book reveals, Bersweden is still a “Young Botanist”, so he’s still training his eyes and other senses to make the sometimes minute distinctions between one species and other. In chapter two, he’s “Stumped by Ireland’s Mediterranean Orchid”. But in chapter nine, he’s after an orchid that’s instantly recognizable even to a complete amateur: Cypripedium calceolus, the Lady’s Slipper. It’s the Empress of British orchids, once thought to have been driven into extinction by collectors, then re-discovered in 1930 by the Jarman brothers, two cotton-weavers who worked at a factory in the Yorkshire town of Silsden.

The precise location of their discovery, deep in the Yorkshire Dales, has been kept secret ever since. And the original orchid is still alive, guarded by fences and an on-site warden. Other specimens have been re-introduced to the wild, propagated from domesticated Lady Slippers, and Bersweden visits one of these in the “Gait Burrow Nature Reserve on the Lancashire-Cumbria border”. He’d never seen one in the flesh before:

It’s difficult to describe the emotional impact. Over the years, I’ve read a lot about [these] orchids and ogled hundreds of photos of their unmistakeable flowers, but nothing could have prepared me for that first glimpse of the fragile, jaw-dropping beauty of the Lady’s Slipper. (ch. 9, “The Lady’s Slipper, pg. 169)

But that wasn’t enough for him. He wanted to find the only known truly wild specimen in its secret, security-ringed location. “It might be futile,” he says, “but I had to try. […] Somewhere out there, hidden in the secluded folds of the Dales, the Lady’s Slipper was waiting.” He succeeds in his quest – “Suddenly I saw it: a flash of gold between two hazels” – but as he stands “gawking” over the fence at an orchid he “could only just see”, he’s joined by the watchful warden, who regretfully declines to allow him any closer. “Defeated”, he retreats, dreaming of other truly wild specimens that may still lie undiscovered somewhere in the Dales.

Orchids attract obsessive people and Leif Bersweden is definitely one of those: he snatches time during his mother’s fiftieth birthday party to tick the Burnt Orchid, Neotinea ustulata, off his list (ch. 8, “Butterflies and Burnt Tips”, pp. 143-157). Obsession makes for good scientists, but doesn’t necessarily make for good writers. In this case it does: The Orchid Hunter is one of the best natural history books I’ve ever read. It’s also an excellent introduction to what its author calls “the furtive, capricious, enigmatic world of orchids” (pg. 255). That’s in chapter 14, entitled “Queen of the Cotswolds” and devoted to the Red Helleborine, Cephalanthera rubra. But if you want to know exactly what Helleborines are, you have to read the book or look elsewhere: The Orchid Hunter doesn’t, alas, have an index. That’s a big flaw in what is otherwise a very good book.

Advertisements

Read Full Post »