Change of speaker

Unfortunately, Keith Smart is unable to join us on Tuesday but happily Sandra Simpson, fresh back from her travels, will present her illustrated talk, ‘Orchids of Singapore’ which will include images from last year and last week!

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Dendrobium Constance (Den. discolor x Den. lasianthera), the oldest Singapore-origin Dendrobium hybrid. Made and registered by John Laycock and the Singapore Botanic Gardens in the 1940s. Photo: Sandra Simpson

Looking forward to seeing all our members, as well as any guests who’d like to come along – Tuesday, August 21 at 7pm in the Wesley Church side room (turn left at the hall and follow the happy buzz).

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Art Nouveau orchid jewels

A few little orchid masterpieces from the Art Nouveau period (1884-1914) …

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Orchid hair comb by Rene Lalique. Image: Walters Art Museum

Renowned French glassmaker René Lalique (1860-1945), was also a notable jewellery designer of the late 19th century and his ‘Orchid Comb’ is one of the Walters Art Museum’s greatest treasures. Combining materials in unexpected ways, Lalique developed new techniques and revived old ones, blending historical and cultural references.

The ‘Orchid Comb’ represents the height of Lalique’s jewellery production. His studio rendered the highly naturalistic orchid out of a single piece of ivory; diamonds play a supporting role, picking out the veins along three slim leaves in glowing plique-à-jour enamel. The stem is attached by a gold hinge to a three-pronged horn comb. This is the most flamboyant of all the pieces purchased by museum founder Henry Walters at the St Louis World’s Fair in 1904. Never intended to be worn, the Orchid Comb entered the collection as a masterpiece of technical accomplishment in the field of the decorative arts. The Walters Art Museum is in Baltimore, Maryland in the United States.

But wait, there’s more … the Gulbenkian Museum in Lisbon, Portugal is home to an orchid comb by Lalique that features not one, but three slipper orchids.

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This comb features three carved orchids, designed by Rene Lalique. Image: Gulbenkian Museum

The orchids are carved from two different materials – facing forward is an ivory Paphiopedilum, which facing left and right are orchids carved from horn. A small drop-shaped topaz is at the centre of the ivory flower. The comb itself is also in horn and connected to the ornaments by a gold hinge.

“The exotic orchid was one of the flowers that symbolised the aesthetic movement of the late 19th century. Art Nouveau jewellers handled the subject with great realism, which is heightened in this case by Lalique’s technical mastery,” the museum’s website says. “He started from the real flower yet managed to imbue it simultaneously with elegance and a powerful erotic charge.”


Some of the Paulding Farnham orchid brooches exhibited at the 1889 Paris World Fair. Image:

Paulding Farnham (1859-1927) is a name that won’t leap to mind when thinking of fabulous jewellery designers but in the late 19th and early 20th centuries he raised the profile of American company Tiffany & Co – and it was all thanks to his botanical designs, especially orchids.

Farhham joined Tiffany’s in about 1879 and worked for them until 1908, becoming chief designer and director of the jewellery division in 1893.

The 1889 Paris Exposition Universelle (world fair) marked Farnham’s first major display of work, which included his enamelled and jewelled orchids. Each orchid was drawn from life after blooms were sent from places such as Guatemala, the Philippines, Colombia, India, Mexico and Brazil. The individual blooms were “coated in copper to preserve [them] for study”, according to Kristin Edrington in her 2012 Master’s thesis and quoting from Jeweled Garden by Suzanne Tennenbaum and Janet Zapata (Vendome Press, 2006).

The 24 Tiffany brooches caused a stir at the Exposition, Edrington says. “The public was stunned and fascinated with the fact that the orchids were so life-like, and the actual species of orchid could be matched with the jeweled orchid. While many French jewelers … had captured the floral form and stylized it, Farnham was able to recreate the flowers’ very essence of realism and life. He took floral jewelry design to an entirely new level of naturalism.”

The company won a silver medal, among other awards, for Farnham’s orchid designs, and seven of the brooches remain in the Tiffany Archive.

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Vanilla wars

Unfortunately, for the vanilla farmers of Madagascar this isn’t a ‘fake news’ headline. Britain’s Guardian newspaper reported earlier this year that in Madagascar, the world’s primary supplier of pods, vanilla has aroused dangerous passions.

Crop thefts have been reported in most of the key growing regions and there have been dozens of murders. Some communities have called for protection from armed police, while others have taken matters into their own hands (in one village the thieves were rounded up and hacked to death).

The vanilla violence is, according to one local conservationist, a product of poorly regulated global markets, corrupt local politicians and a flood of cash from illegal rosewood trades to China being laundered through the vanilla industry which, because of higher prices due to demand, is leading to deforestation. Read the full story here.

Why higher demand? Because less vanilla is available – Madagascar was struck by Cyclone Enawo in March 2017, the third-biggest cyclone on record, which hit a country already grappling with years of drought. Two of the largest vanilla-producing regions in Madagascar were directly impacted and most of the crop destroyed.

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This 2016 photo shows armed guards with vanilla pods near Sambava, Madagascar – that year vanilla prices had almost quadrupled while it was generally accepted that the quality of the crop had declined.

According to Bill Laws in his 2011 book Fifty Plants that Changed the Course of History, by the early 1800s the vanilla orchid had been taken from its natural homeland of Mexico to Mauritius and from there to Indonesia, Réunion Island, Tahiti and Madagascar – the vanilla orchid can grow only a few degrees either side of the Equator and only in Mexico does it have natural pollinators.

It wasn’t until 1841 that Edmond Albius, a 12-year-old slave on Réunion in the Indian Ocean, worked out how to hand-pollinate vanilla blooms using a stick and a flip of the thumb – and vanilla plantations sprang up across the globe.

Vanilla is the second most expensive spice in the world (after saffron) because its production is so labour-intensive. The orchid grows as a clinging vine, up to 100m long.

Most of the world’s crop (75%) comes from the islands of Réunion (formerly Île Bourbon) and Madagascar and is known as Bourbon vanilla, with most of the remaining 25% from Mexico and Tahiti. Heilala Vanilla is a successful Tauranga company that grows its raw product in Tonga.

Less than 1% of vanilla flavouring in our food comes from the vanilla orchid, the rest is synthetic flavour. Read a National Geographic article about vanilla production. Although it’s widely believed that vanilla is the only edible orchid, you might remember this post from last year about salep, used in food and drinks in places like Turkey and Iran, and made from orchid tubers.

Meanwhile, the April 2018 edition of Orchids, the American Orchid Society journal, reports that a new species of vanilla orchid and has been discovered in southeastern Costa Rica. Vanilla karen-christianae was found in an area  along the Pan-American Highway where it crosses into Panama.

“The genus includes just over 100 species in its broad distribution and about a dozen have been reported from Costa Rica … the plants were found growing on trees along a small creek and main highway in an area under high pressure because of agricultural and developmental activities, and has no protected or conserved forests nearby.”

The plant has been named to honour Karen Christiana Figueres Olsen, an internationally recognised Costa Rican leader on climate change.

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Orchids at the wedding

For orchid lovers there wasn’t much of interest in the recent Royal wedding … or was there?

I’m sure you have your own opinion of the event at Windsor Castle, but I think we’ll probably all agree that the bride’s veil was stupendous, all 5 metres of it!

Clare Waight Keller, artistic director at Givenchy and designer of Meghan Markle’s wedding dress, with a sample of the hand-embroidered lace that made up the veil.

According to a press release from Kensington Palace, Ms Markle – now the Duchess of Sussex – expressed the wish of having all 53 countries of the Commonwealth with her on her journey through the ceremony. Clare Waight Keller designed a veil that represented the distinctive flora of each Commonwealth country united in one spectacular composition – and including many orchids.

The veil was made from silk tulle with a trim of hand-embroidered flowers in silk threads and organza. Each flower was worked flat, in three dimensions with the embroiderers spending hundreds of hours meticulously sewing – and washing their hands every 30 minutes – to keep the tulle and threads pristine.

In addition to the flora of the Commonwealth, Ms Markle also selected two personal favourites: Wintersweet (Chimonanthus praecox), which grows in the grounds of Kensington Palace in front of Nottingham Cottage (where she lives with Prince Harry); and the California poppy (Eschscholzia californica), representing the US state where Ms Markle was born.

Symmetrically placed at the very front of the veil, embroidered crops of wheat symbolised love and charity (and from what I understand are also a motif for fertility!).

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The embroidery can be seen in this photo of the bride entering St George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle and, below, as she leaves.

The press release says: “Significant time was spent researching the flora of each Commonwealth country and much care was taken by Ms Waight Keller to ensure that every flower is unique”. But when the first two orchids in the list from Africa are so generic, they might be the first Google hits her staff got – in 2012 the people of Kenya were canvassed as to what their national flower might be. One suggestion, among many, was the “tropical orchid” (Phalaenopsis as far as I can make out) as the country grows so many for export.

The orchids on the veil were: “White variety orchid” from Gambia; “tropical orchid” from Kenya; Tropicbird orchid (Angraecum eburnum) from the Seychelles; Vanda Miss Joaquim from Singapore; the Black Orchid (Prosthechea cochleata, syn. Encyclia cochleata) from Belize; and Sepik Blue Orchid (Dendrobium lasianthera) from Papua New Guinea.

New Zealand was represented by the kowhai flower. Read the full list of flowers here.

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Despite the extravagant use of flowers at the entry to St George’s Chapel, as can be seen above, the bride carried only a small posy bouquet. which apparently did not include orchids.

The bridal bouquet carried by the Duchess of Sussex at her wedding was then laid on the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior in the west nave of Westminster Abbey in London. 

The Palace press release notes that Prince Harry handpicked several flowers from the couple’s private garden to add to the bouquet designed by florist Philippa Craddock. The spring blooms include forget-me-nots which were the favourite flower of Diana, Princess of Wales. The bouquet also including scented sweet peas, lily of the valley, astilbe, jasmine and astrantia, and sprigs of myrtle, bound with a naturally dyed, raw silk ribbon.

The myrtle sprigs are from stems planted at Osborne House on the Isle of Wight, by Queen Victoria in 1845, and from a plant grown from the myrtle used in The Queen’s wedding bouquet of 1947. The myrtle was first carried by Queen Victoria’s eldest daughter, Princess Victoria, when she married in 1858.

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Queen Elizabeth’s orchid brooch

To mark Queen’s Birthday weekend, let’s look at one of the jewels of Queen Elizabeth II, pictured above wearing the Mappin & Webb Orchid Brooch for the 2015 Maundy Thursday service at Sheffield Cathedral.

She was presented with the brooch in 2013 to celebrate the 60th anniversary of her coronation. A gift from Mappin & Webb (jewellers, Royal Warrant-holding silversmiths  and home of current Crown Jeweller Martin Swift) in collaboration with Waterford Crystal, the brooch includes orchid flowers of hand-cut Waterford Crystal with 66 diamonds and rose-gold stamens.

The Queen debuted the brooch on an historic occasion in 2014 – welcoming the first president of Ireland to make a state visit to Britain. The jewel has been included in her annual brooch rotation ever since.

Thanks to Ella Kay at The Court Jeweller for her help in preparing this post.

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Language of flowers

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Orchid arrangements with designs painted on their petals photographed at a warehouse used by ArtGreen Co. in Tokyo, Japan.

An ArtGreen employee paints the petals of an orchid. The orchids are named Keshoran (orchids wearing make-up). Petals are painted using stencils, a paint brush and special  powder.

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Giving moth orchids as business gifts, a practice that took off during the high-growth era of the 1980s, is so ingrained in Japan that the country now has its own listed orchid seller, ArtGreen. Its shares surged 111% between 2015, when it started trading on the Nagoya Stock Exchange, and 2017.

A 2017 Japan Times article says ArtGreen president Yutaka Tanaka, 52, founded the company at the age of 25 as a way to hit back after being bullied at school – he wanted to be a successful company director.

ArtGreen’s bestselling arrangement, which has at least 30 individual flowers in a pot with chiffon paper coverings, retails for ¥20,000 ($253). Pricier versions can feature company logos or designs spray-painted onto the white petals using specially developed powder. They can cost as much as ¥60,000 ($760).

The number of potted orchid arrangements sold annually in auctions tracked by the Japanese Flower Auction Association stood at 1.92 million in 2015 – broadly similar to the 1.89 million in 1995. However, the wholesale price of a potted arrangement of orchids has risen more than 40% over two decades, with increases accelerating 14% in the three years to 2015.

And did you know that Phalaenopsis orchid flowers can be dyed – while still on the plant? According to a US website, one method is to make a small hole in the stem of the plant and inject a coloured dye. Once the dyeing process is complete, cover the hole with wax. The blooms will start to change colour within 24 hours. Apparently the most common colour change is from white to blue.

Wayne Turville of the Australian Orchid Nursery (don’t mind the lack of punctuation) is one person who isn’t afraid to say what he thinks about it. Kevin Yanik, on the Greenhouse Grower website, ponders the implications on the nursery industry of dyeing potted orchids (and other plants).

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Ex situ orchid survey

Botanic Gardens Conservation International-US, in partnership with the United States Botanic Garden, last month published a global survey of ex situ orchids (those held outside their natural habitat; ex situ literally means off site).

One of the largest plant families in the world, orchids occur naturally in nearly every ecosystem on Earth. Orchids are also economically important and often over-collected in the wild. Ex situ collections are a vital conservation measure offering protection to species away from their native habitat and any in situ threats. Ex situ collections can also form the basis of reintroduction and restoration programmes.

The report highlights the 35% (272) orchid genera that are not known in ex situ collections, a vital conservation measure that could prevent extinction. Only 36% of orchid species known to be threatened are reported by gardens, and a majority of those collections lack provenance information and adequate duplication across institutions.

This means that very few orchid taxa have back-up protection if in situ populations are lost. “We call for orchid ex situ collections to be expanded to contain a greater diversity of species and sufficient genetic diversity to prevent species extinction and allow their use in recovery and restoration programmes, especially in biodiverse regions,” the report says.

One orchid species, Oeceoclades seychellarum, has been assessed by the IUCN as Extinct due to habitat degradation caused by human settlement and invasive plants. Although only 3% (890 of 27,800) of orchids have been assessed by the IUCN, 59% (529 taxa) are considered threatened and need ex situ protection to prevent extinction.

Read the full report here (opens as a pdf, 13MB). It includes a list of 272 orchid genera not yet known by BGCI in an ex situ collection – if you know of a specimen, please report it.

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