October 2014


The ''Vanda'' Of the Lankan Orchid
October 2014




Indian Dendrobium: Exotic flower grows in low country wet zones (Photography Luxman Nadarajah)

Words and Photography Manu Gunasena


The orchid family is so well connected it has over 23,000 relatives and can lay claim to being the largest family of flowering plants. And as for the family tree, scientific evidence show its roots date back over 70 million years to when the antediluvian orchid shared the same space with the dinosaurs that then roamed the world.


With such a big family, it's no wonder that the orchid has spread its branches far and wide and is found in all the earth's continents apart from the Polar Regions. Even in the hot deserts of Australia, the orchid shows its face from the sun scorched earth.

The Nari Latha orchid, so named since the flower resembles the perfectly formed figure of a woman with a bonneted head
How did this family of Orchidaceae become one of the fittest to survive and become one of nature's most successful clans? This is a mystery that has consumed the minds of the world's top botanists, including Charles Darwin who probed its origins and spread in his book 'Fertilization of Orchids', which describes the complex mechanism orchids have evolved to achieve cross pollination.


With the breakup of the continents over a period of millions of years, the orchid evolved worldwide too. Five of the main families that descend from the genera are the Vanda, the Dendrobium, the Cattleya, the Phalaenopsis and the Oncidium, which grow in many areas of the world.


In Sri Lanka, where the orchid is called Udawediya, the Vanda family commands the majority of the position in terms of population while the Dendrobium clan comes a close second.


In Sri Lanka, as elsewhere, the wild orchid grows on trees (Epiphytes) and on rocks (Lithophytes). Some grow on small rocks by river banks with their roots merely caressing the waters. Some even grow underground and their presence is known only when a spike emerges from the soil to bloom a flower at sunrise which, like mushrooms, lasts only for a brief period. Most orchids are sun shy and prefer to blush unseen among decaying leaves under shady trees on damp forest floors.


One of the better known orchids is the Vanda Tessellata, popularly known as the Anuradhapura Orchid. It is also called the grey orchid; and is hued from nature's palette of varied colours. Sometimes it is grey, green, pink, yellow or creamy white. The lip may come painted in blue, mauve, red or yellow and it lends a strong scent to the air.The Anuradhapura orchid has been known for its medical properties and has been used to relieve rheumatism.


Other orchids have also been used for their medicinal properties. Among them is the local orchid called the Jatamakuta. It's a slow growing plant and when it blooms, the flower rises with the sun only to perish at sunset. According to old Sinhala medical texts, the Jatamakuta helps to restore the three humours in the human body, namely wind, bile and phlegm to its equilibrium state and is known as an effective treatment for deranged minds. The whole plant is given in the form of a decoction. Another is the Vana Raja orchid, which is supposed to possess a panacea for certain unnamed illnesses known only to the ayurvedic practitioner.


What must make the heart beat faster at a healthy rate is the Habenaria crinifera or the Nari Latha orchid, so named since the flower resembles the perfectly formed figure of a woman with arms and legs spread wide and with a bonneted head. In the rustle of the breeze, she does appear to dance in carefree style. It is also known as the Ahas Makuta and is mainly found in low country wet regions and is a ground orchid.

The orchid family is so well connected it has over 23,000 relatives and can lay claim to being the largest family of flowering plants
The Acanthephippium, known as the Pitcher Orchid for its shape, is a ground orchid that blooms with beautiful flowers while Malaxis versicolor is a ground orchid with a cluster of flowers, each one only 2mm across.
The buds are yellow in colour and then turn red as it opens up. It flowers for long and can survive for many weeks.


The Vanda testacea is an epiphyte that grows on trees and is found in intermediate dry zones and has even been spotted in Trincomalee on the East Coast. Whereas it reaches with the help of the tree towards the sky, the Epipogium finds contentment underground. It is one of the Saprophytic kind and the only close encounter you will have with it, is when its spike breaks ground to display its white bloom. Having lived beneath the surface, it has no chlorophyll and, like a fungus, it lives on decaying vegetation.


One of the few large orchids endemic to Sri Lanka is aptly called the Vesak orchid as it blooms with the waxing of the Vesak moon in May.It mainly grows in the Ratnapura region and needs a wet humid habitat to exist. The Vesak orchid must not be confused with an Indian Dendrobium, which grows in low country wet zones, including Colombo. It is an introduced exotic flower that does not grow in the wild, but in cultivation.


The Daffodil orchid, which blooms in September, is a rare plant localised in distribution and is found in Horton Plains. An unusual feature of this orchid is that when it blooms, it sheds its leaves. An orchid that blooms in June is named the Poson orchid and bears pale green flowers. Sri Lankan orchids have played their part in the formal classification of orchids worldwide. Nearly 350 years ago a German doctor, Paul Hermann, was appointed by the Dutch East India Company as the "Ordinary and the First Physician in the island of Ceylon." A keen botanist, he began collecting various plants in and around Colombo and prepared a herbarium, which is a collection of dried and pressed plants.


After his death, four volumes of pressed plants and a volume of 400 drawings done by Hermann, during his stay in Colombo, were presented to the German botanist Carl Linnaeus with the task of identifying the Sri Lankan specimens. The result of his work was published in his book Flora Zeylonica (Flora of Ceylon) and led to two Sri Lankan orchids collected by Hermann being given a binomial name in the international register.
The Hermann herbarium is today lodged in the British Museum.


Sri Lankan orchids were also collected and studied by various botanists during the British colonial period. In 1824, Alexander Moore published A Catalogue of Indigenous and Exotic Plants Growing in Ceylon, which lists 17 species of orchids in 10 genera. This publication was followed by another by G H K Thwaites who listed 145 species and 65 genera.The process of further identifying and listing Sri Lankan species of the orchid followed throughout the 19th Century. In 1975, the number of species reported had grown to 166.


No orchid enthusiast should miss the opportunity to visit the Peradeniya Royal Botanical Gardens. In a special enclosure is the Orchid House, a greenhouse with an exotic collection of orchids, mainly bred in the Gardens' own research laboratory where a programme of breeding hybrids from local orchids and local and foreign orchids is underway.


The breeding process is a long affair. Once cross pollination has been effected, it takes approximately three to six months to get a pod, a capsule containing over a million seeds. These are placed on a culture media and it takes nine to 12 months to germinate. Around 500 are selected. Light and heat are regulated and the seeds are grown under lab conditions. When they reach a height of half an inch, they are placed in glass containers and sent to the nursery's bottle bank.


After six months or so, when they have reached a height of two inches they are placed in a community pot to acclimatise them with their environs. Thereafter, when they reach a height of six inches they are placed in individual five inch pots. It takes a further two and a half years for the plant to flower. Until it blooms, no breeder can say what colour the flower will be for hybrid orchids are not gene proof and variations are common.


The famous Kandyan Dancer, long the favourite of Sri Lankans who proudly grow it in their home gardens, has no Sri Lankan connection. Instead it is the hybrid of two foreign hybrids known in the west as Dancing Ladies. Introduced over 30 years ago to Sri Lanka, it was quickly named by an imaginative mind as Kandyan Dancer, since it has a striking resemblance to a full costumed Kandyan dancer in action. It is a small flower and blooms in yellow and lasts for a week or two.


Today orchids have become big business and the little unknown flowers, which kept their existence hidden in the undergrowth have been brought out from the wild forest glade and thrust upon the world stage. The secret is out.

 

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    Dendrobium Dandy: Red Dendrobium hybrid bred locally

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    Vanda Hybrid: the Peradeniya version bears a close resemblance to the local Anuradhapura Orchid and the variety Kotia

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    Royal Honour: the Cattleya bloom named after visiting Japanese Princess Tsuguko Takamado

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    The Holy Ghost: also known as the Dove Orchid, it is the national flower of Panama

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    Vanda: the blue Vanda flower

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    Dendrobium Delight: the five petal pink hybrid

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    Nariiatha: The Habenaria crinifera is the scientific name but in the vernacular the orchid is named “a woman’s body beautiful” (Photography Dr Siril Wijesundara)

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    Malaxis versicolor: an indigenous ground orchid with small flowers (Photography Dr Siril Wijesundara)

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    In Full Blush: the white and yellow Cattleya

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    Lily of the Valley: indigenous orchid found in Nuwara Eliya area (Photography Luxman Nadarajah)

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    Jatamakuta: indigenous medicinal orchid

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    Dendrobium Black Spider

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    Oncidium Sharry Baby

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    Kandyan Dancer: the popular home grower’s orchid resembles a Kandyan dancer and is known in the western world as Dancing Ladies. It’s from two foreign hybrids

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    Life outdoors: Orchids growing in the sun

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