The blue vanda
Vanda orchids are among the most popular ornamental orchids. Thousands of man-made and cloned selections and hybrids have been commercialized. This is good, because the man-made orchids take the criminal eyes away from the less colourful natural wild orchid species. The bad effect of a focus on man-made orchids only is that hardly anyone care about the extinction of the original wild orchids. The wild orchids have colours and shapes for a purpose; to attract insects to secure pollination and seed formation. The colours and shapes of the sparkling man-made orchids serve no purpose; although gorgeous pieces of art, they are simply colours of the landscaper’s palette.
So what about the original Vanda from nature? ‘Vanda’ is a local Indian name for the wild orchid Vanda tessellata (Syn. V. roxburghii), and that name was Latinized by the extraordinary philologist Sir William Jones (1746-1794) who founded the ‘Asiatick Society’ in Calcutta in 1784. In Sanskrit, ‘Vanda’ may refer to any parasitic/epiphytic plant. The name Vanda became the scientific name for the whole genus of related orchid species. ‘Vandoidae’ is a subfamily of many epiphytic orchid genera with monopodial growth, meaning the stems have unlimited top growth.
Of the world’s ca 46 species of Vanda (including Trudelia as suggested by Mabberley 2008), ten wild species occur in Thailand if we consider the avatar orchid Aerides flabellata as a Vanda flabellata. The Papilionanthe genus used to be included in Vanda too, but due its terete (cylindrical) foliage and somewhat different flowers it was split from true vandas, which makes sense.
Of these ten Thai Vanda orchids, it is ‘the blue vanda’ (Vanda coerulea, Orchidaceae, ‘fa mui’ in Central Thai language) that has been used most for making garden orchid hybrids. This species can be found in the wild even outside Chiang Mai, and is native to montane (800-1600 m) deciduous and evergreen northern Thai, Burmese, southern Yunnanese and northeast Indian monsoon forests. This habitat preference makes it somewhat sensitive here in the hotter and drier Chiang Mai valley (350 m), but a careful shading, facing north or east and a limited dry period (November-February only) would make it thrive. I have seen it on rocks in higher altitudes, so sun exposure can be tolerated if the climate is cooler. ‘Coerulea’ means ‘heavenly blue’ in Latin.
Being large and attractive also in its original wild form makes the ‘blue vanda’ a target for orchid snatchers who raid the national parks. It is highly endangered and so Santi Watthana at the Queen Sirikit Botanic Garden has successfully launched a project to grow it and replant it, and also teaching the locals about it. The Dokmai Garden Orchid Ark also works with this species.
The wild ‘blue vanda’ has milder colours than most commercial Vanda cultivars and hybrids. Still, this is the original form, a jungle native, not a laboratory product.
You can see the original wild blue vanda in blossom right now at Dokmai Garden, Chiang Mai, Thailand.
Text & Photo: Eric Danell