Thursday, 2 June 2011

Orchid Hunting

(A 'rasta-orchid' or Comperia comperiana)

Orchids form the biggest flower family that we know on earth. Their 21.000 – 26.000 officially accepted different species twice outnumber the birds and four times outnumber the mammals. Their beauty is recognized worldwide but when we look at their history, it seems that orchids are very dangerous flowers because they make many an orchid collector crazy. Collecting orchids can be a dangerous business.

When the first Asian orchids came to Europe during Victorian times (19th century) people were so enthusiastic that an orchid fever arose that killed several people. Europeans were sent deep into the unknown jungles of Borneo, Colombia or Peru in order to collect new species of orchids and to ship them back to Europe. During these perilous travels orchid hunters drowned in wild flowing rivers, were killed or eaten by cannibals, had lethal bites from dangerous snakes or died from malaria and other tropical diseases. Even in the 20st century people paid with their lives for their passion: around 1900 a group of eight orchid hunters left for the Philippines. One got eaten by a tiger, another was doused with cooking oil and burned alive, five just disappeared but the one survivor returned to Europe with 7000 species! Little decades later a group was taken hostage by natives in Papua New Guinea and some of them were beheaded before a rescue team could save the rest.

The stories of the surviving orchid hunters could be horrific. If they were not killed themselves they at least were witness to local wars with barbaric rituals and tortures or they might find a village full of breathtakingly beautiful orchids, that however smelled so bad that you even could not approach them.

Orchid hunters were not a kind people. They fought with each other, they burned down whole areas where they found precious orchids or they destroyed all they could not take with them; they caused huge damage so that their competitors could not find what they had discovered. It is even said that when the boxes with orchids were ready to be put on the ships to Europe they would pee on those of their competitors so that the flowers would not survey the journey. Of course during these sea journeys whole bunches of precious orchids got lost. The exotic flowers were often not good seafarers, ships were sunk or burned out.

Orchid hunters still exist and because the Asian orchids are most precious commercially, it is they that are collected by the most crazy people. The book Orchid fever of Eric Hansen gives an entertaining vision of how eccentric this orchid world of crazy people is.

In Greece where you can find some 200 species, the orchid hunters are a more friendly lot. In Greece they do not look to sell or smuggle orchids; here they are peacefully shot by cameras and before there were camera’s they were drawn or dried for a herbarium.

Between 1879 and 1889, when at the other side of the world many an orchid hunter got lost in the jungles, here on Lesvos people also researched plants and amongst them orchids. Father C.A. Candargy and his son P.C. Candargy noted about 27 species on the island. I suppose the Candargy’s were not eaten by tigers or cannibals, but they disappeared without trace into history. Their herbarium is still lost and besides some minor biographical points the only thing that is left of them is their book Flore de l’Ile de Lesbos, published in 1889.

Now they say that here on Lesvos there are some 70 – 90 species, of which about ten are pretty rare and the search for them will bring you to the most unexpected and beautiful places.

I would become crazy from such an orchid mania; the island is so big that it is absolutely impossible to look everywhere on the island and most orchids like to hide in their natural environment so that even if they are big, you just look past them. On top of that, you have to be in the right place at the right time. It can be that they have just finished blossoming, or that they are still to come.

Last week I joined an orchid hunt in the region of Megalochori, where some rare species must be hiding. I am not that fanatical about these flowers, so I also look for other flowers. My fellow travellers promised me I would see flowering peonies. But they were just finished, just like some of the tulips and fritellaria. So, I was a little disappointed. Happily enough there were plenty of nice orchids and I got very lucky to find a rare Comperts orchid (Comperia comperiana), an orchid with crazy wild hairs, therefore I call it a rasta-orchid.

Not only orchid hunters are crazy, so are the flowers themselves. They do everything to seduce their environment: they develop the most crazy perfumes, colours and forms to attract insects to help with fertilizing.

A late summer – still a little cold, especially in the mornings and evenings – has one advantage: the whole of nature is late and tourists who know the island from previous May months may be surprised by the explosion of flowers and the near tropical green colour of the landscape right now.

For the orchid hunter it means that he has to reschedule his search: the species that flower in May are still not to be found due to the weather or you just do not find them, which can be pretty confusing. But it means that the orchid season, on Lesvos starting in February, can last until late in July.

(with thanks to Mary Staples)

@ Smitaki 2011

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