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The venus fan

January 23, 2013

The native orchid flowering season has begun, one species after another opens up, reaching a climax in March, a dry and hot period here in the Chiang Mai valley in northern Thailand.

In the shower room I already have the skywalker (Adenoncos parviflora, Orchidaceae) in blossom. I show it sometimes to people I feel have a heart for wild plants. The fragrance is strong of coconut and/or vanilla.

Out in the garden I can see the Baronet orchid (Hygrochilus parishii var. marriottianus) in bloom. It is the pioneer specimen which I planted in an evergreen longan tree in a dry site facing morning sun. It has done remarkably well, so last rainy season (which was terribly dry; awful for orchid growers) I planted five more specimens, kindly donated by Ekkehard Schwadtke at Orchid Garden Khaolak. Thereby their combined flowers would strengthen the attraction for the pollinator. Pollination would also be facilitated by keeping a convenient distance between flowers, rather than forcing the poor insect to zig-zag hundreds of meters within Dokmai Garden, exposing itself to predators of the sky and cobwebs. A dense patch of one orchid species also reduces incidence of unwanted hybrids and from an ornamental perspective a concentrated mass of one flowering species is also quite successful. You can still see the Baronet orchid in the wild, although its beauty makes it a target of orchid snatchers.

The tarantula leg or monkey hand (Dendrobium senile, Orchidaceae) still has a few flowers left. It did not produce many flowers this year, probably as a protest to the terrible drought of last year.

Other orchids in blossom now belong to the genus Cirrhopetalum or Bulbophyllum.

Bulbophyllum flabellum-veneris.72Cirrhopetalum lepidum (Orchidaceae) syn. Bulbophyllum flabellum-veneris. Photo: Ong Poh Teck.

Cirrhopetalum corolliferum.Jan23.2013.72Cirrhopetalum curtisii syn. Bulbophyllum corolliferum. Vendor’s labels and illustrated orchid books may not necessarily provide a correct ID. The power of blogs is continuous updates and corrections. This species can sometimes be distinguished from the previous one by the colour of the dorsal sepal; red in B. corolliferum, yellow in B. flabellum-veneris. However, as Malaysian orchidologist Ong Poh Teck points out, colours are not stable characters….

Bulbophyllum flabellum-veneris_showing column, side view.72

…..and so the lip and column shapes are more important: the stelidia of the column wings, here seen as flattened projections with small dark spots, are rounded in Bulbophyllum flabellum-veneris (this picture) while pointed in B. corolliferum. Photo: Ong Poh Teck. Eminent orchid anatomy glossaries are found on this Australian and this Russian orchid site.

The genus Cirrhopetalum is characterized by a flower arrangement similar to that of a carousel. It is the plant’s way of facilitating pollination for the insect, probably a fly based on the flowers’ colour.The reason we do not know much about the vanishing forest orchids’ pollinators is that people in general do not care about ‘the original creation‘. People in general like to kill nature or change it to fit their dream about silicon boobs.

The publication of the genus Cirrhopetalum by the British orchidologist John Lindley in 1824 was an attempt to make order within the vast genus Bulbophyllum, encompassing some 2000 species according to Mabberley’s Plant Book. ‘Kirrhos’ is Greek meaning tawny (orange-brown) and ‘petalum’ simply means ‘petal’. The genus Cirrhopetalum is not recognized by modern orchidologists who use molecular techniques to study the actual pedigree of orchids. It shows that the cirrhopetalums do not have an ancestor in common, indicating that the arrangement of flowers in an elegant carousel appears now and then among non-related bulbophyllums. Still, like with Michelia (Magnoliaceae), an obsolete genus name may help you a lot in explaining its morphology, so knowing the old names are good too.

If Cirrhopetalum is no longer recognized, should the international scientific name, coined by Johannes Jacobus Smith based on Carl Ludwig von Blume’s original species description Ephippium lepidum from 1825, be Bulbophyllum lepidum then? No, according to the botanical code the oldest name has priority. As it turns out, this species was described before Blume; Epidendrum flabellum-veneris was described by Johann Gerhard König in 1791. In the 18th century when the vastness of the flora was still not fully understood, all epiphytic orchids were called ‘Epidendrum’, which is Latinized Greek literally meaning ‘in addition to trees’. König was a disciple of Linnaeus, born in today’s Latvia, worked for the British East India company and participated in an expedition to Thailand and the Malacca straits in 1778-1780. He died of dysentery in India in 1785, so the publication was made by Swedish Anders Jahan Retzius after König’s death. The transfer from Epidendrum to Bulbophyllum was made recently (2003) by Russian orchidologist Leonid Vladimirovich Averyanov.

Flabellum-veneris‘ means ‘Venus fan’, a romantic, descriptive and beautiful name by König. I therefore propose the English name ‘Venus fan’ for this orchid. A Thai name is ‘singto bai phat dhaeng’. Vernacular names are needed to create an initial interest in wild plants, because although scientific names are precise and more useful when googling information, they can deter a novise. The Venus fan is native to evergreen forests of India and Southeast Asia including Borneo and Java.

Similarly, Cirrhopetalum curtisii should be Bulbophyllum corolliferum, a name originally coined by the Dutch botanist Johannes Jacobus Smith in 1917. He studied the flora of Java and New Guinea for nearly 20 years.  ‘The wreath carrying Cirrhopetalum’ is an English name I have encountered, but it is a long awkward name, and it still contains the scientific name and that name is now obsolete so we need a better one. ‘Corolliferum’ means ‘bearing a small crown’, so an English name could be ‘royal orchid’. This species is a native to the rainforests of Southeast Asia and so it should be grown in a moist environment such as the Dokmai Garden outdoor shower where it blooms frequently in the cool season.

The Venus fan has 22 synonymous scientific names. This is either due to the scientists of old times being so eager to publish they did not check other literature carefully, or being unable to check the literature carefully. Since there were no computers in the 18th and 19th centuries, one had to know all literature, and keep in constant communication with other researchers by writing letters or physically travel to university libraries to read rare books. The great number of scientific synonyms is also due to the old species concept, where a slight anatomical difference was enough to erect a new species. Today’s biological species concept emphasise groups of interbreeding individuals and such interbreeding can be revealed from DNA studies using lab techniques similar to fatherhood analyses. As a consequence, many old ‘species’ have been lumped together because they turn out to be forms of one species.

If your garden encompass 1000 plant species, you need to know their current scientific names, one or two common scientific synonyms and one or two English vernacular names and one or two local Thai names, in total forcing your head to keep track of some 6000 names. We believe Dokmai Garden can host at least 3000 species….

Text & Photo: Eric Danell & Ong Poh Teck

7 Comments leave one →
  1. sandriver permalink
    January 23, 2013 8:20 PM

    As you talk about interbreeding individuals and the genus Hygrochilus in this article,
    I would like to report an observation which has troubled me for many years.

    “Today’s biological species concept emphasise groups of interbreeding individuals…”
    Pollination in orchids is only possible during a flowering period. Orchids flowering
    and being pollinated outside this period must be a different species.

    Kew Monocot List has lumped together all Thai variations in the genus Hygrochilus
    under the species name:
    Hygrochilus parishii (Veitch & Rchb.f.) Pfitzer in H.G.A.Engler & K.A.E.Prantl (eds.),
    Nat. Pflanzenfam., Nachtr. 1: 112 (1897).

    My observation is that Hygrochilus parishii var. marriottianus and Hygrochilus parishii
    do not flower at the same time. One var. flowers only after the other has finished.
    Nantiya Vaddhanaphuti states different flowering periods in her field guide.

    Please keep a close eye on this. If this is true an explanation is necessary.

    • January 24, 2013 10:38 AM

      Dear Sandriver,

      Your observation is very interesting and your logic is sound. If two forms within the same habitat or geographical area flower at different times, there can not be any gene flow, implying different species. Whether or not there is such a geneflow can be determined using DNA analyses. When the Orchid Ark has matured and has money for such analyses we can proceed.

      I have another case with a Dendrobium primulinum form with a yellow blotch on its lip, also flowering at different time from the regular form even within the same tree.

      Orchid Scout Kurt Keller in Chiang Dao reported a new Bulbophyllum, also undescribed.

      There is a lot more to discover!


  2. David Fielder permalink
    January 24, 2013 11:25 AM

    Hello Eric,

    Excellent pictures and information as usual!!

    Has Dokmai Gardens ever thought of having an “Adopt and Orchid” program where people would donate to have a particular species protected at Dokmai Gardens?

    We have another 4 1/2 months before we’ll see our first orchids in bloom.

    David Fielder

    • January 24, 2013 4:09 PM

      Dear David,

      That is an excellent idea! I think an interesting way is to ask somebody to adopt a tentatively undescribed or rejected orchid species, financing the molecular analysis. Sequencing is about 10 USD a sample, but DNA extraction cost a bit more, I shall investigate.

      Cheers, Eric

      • David Fielder permalink
        January 26, 2013 11:47 PM

        Dear Eric,

        There are lots of “Adopt a….” programs including the most one we have around the city and that is to Adopt a Highway or at least a section of it. This is primarily for keeping the area clean from refuge.

        Sign me up fi you every put a adoption program into place!

        Take care – David

  3. sandriver permalink
    January 24, 2013 8:22 PM

    A salvaged plant is in need of urgent DNA analysis: Acriopsis indica with terminal inflorescence



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