Friday, December 15, 2017

A reverence for orchids


MYSTERIOUS: Epidendrum ibaguense is forest dwelling, usually in the canopy. It flowers in the wet season and may measure up to one metre.

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In the hands of Prof Julien Kenny the topic of orchids becomes fascinating. For most of us these are somewhat mysterious but boring plants which happen to bear exotic flowers. But the former professor of zoology at the University of the West Indies, St Augustine, campus lifts the topic out of the mundane with his recently released Orchids of Trinidad and Tobago.

Both the rarest and the more familiar of these flowers are included among over 100 of his colour photographs. It's a record of over 50 years of lovingly and expertly documenting and collecting orchids. Orchids of Trinidad and Tobago is published by Prospect Press, an imprint of Media and Editorial Projects Ltd and is available in bookstores now.

Kenny approaches the topic with all the reverence of a lover on a first date, so that from the book's preface one is gripped with the words ..."My first exposure to an orchid was in the early 1940s, when we lived on upper Sydenham Avenue in St Ann's. The two-storeyed house was of timber, in a large garden with several trees, including a large bay leaf tree between the house and the outquarters. There was running water downstairs, but it all came from a system of cisterns that collected rainwater. Behind the house was a gully from which, after rain, water occasionally flowed into a drain that ran between our house and the next..."

From there he passionately reminisces...

"On one occasion my father came home bearing an orchid plant established in a peculiar pot, and hung it on the bay leaf tree. I remember being intrigued, as the pot did not seem to have any soil, yet there stood the orchid, erect and green, when my childhood experience told me that all plants needed soil.

Over the following days I examined the plant, expecting to see it in flower. I was distinctly disappointed, for it seemed to me that all the plants in the garden flowered continuously, new flowers appearing each day to replace wilted ones. I cannot recall ever having seen that orchid flower, but the image of the plant remains. Possibly it was a Cattleya.

It was some ten years or so later that I had my first up-close contact with an orchid in the wild. That was in Algonquin Park in Ontario, where I secured student summer employment as a technician in a fisheries laboratory at Lake Opeongo, in the provincial park. The work took us daily into the field under the supervision of older students. One of these was a Welshman, Harry Williams, who had served as a navigator in the Royal Canadian Air Force during the Second World War and who had entered the University of Toronto to read for a degree in Biology. He was in either his third or final year, dressed almost always in khaki, a rather solitary older figure, but a first-rate field botanist.

As we sat in a meadow beside one of the lakes, he casually pointed out a small, mostly green, almost leafless plant amongst the grass and other plants. It was an orchid, I was told. Late that summer Harry was to point out to me a larger and rather showy orchid growing in a bog at the edge of the road to the laboratory. Later still, Jack Price, whom I assisted in the field in plankton studies, showed me a cluster of perhaps ten plants in flower in a floating mass of vegetation at the edge of one lake that we were sampling. It was a pink lady's slipper orchid, a Cypripedium of some kind.

On returning to Trinidad and joining the Ministry of Agriculture, in what was to become the Fisheries Division, for the first time I began to look at the natural world about me, particularly as the work took me throughout the country.

Also I took up residence in government quarters in the land Settlement in upper Maracas Valley. The house was an old timber house, typical of small estate managers' houses in the valleys of the Northern Range. The living/dining room was central, with bedrooms on either side, kitchen and servants' quarters at the back and a verandah in front overlooking a sloping front lawn.

In the distance were the southwestern face of El Tucuche and the adjoining peaks of Naranjo and Piedra Blanca. Beside the front steps to the house was a small calabash tree, festooned with dozens of small epiphytic orchids with faint violet coloured flowers. Through a mutual friend I became acquainted with a keen hobbyist, Derek Sorzano, a surveyor by profession, who was able to identify the orchid for me. Ionopsis utricularioides. Thus began my interest in orchids in 1953...."