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A friend/colleague recently gifted me with a new Chicago Botanic Garden office mug—so appropriate since she knows I don’t go anywhere without a cup of tea. What she didn’t know was that I’d soon be digging into the Rare Book Collection at the Lenhardt Library because of it.

PHOTO: Delicate orchids decorate a white china tea mug.

My new office mug…tells quite a story.

View all the items in the Orchid Show collection.

On the cup is a lovely graphic design of orchids—a topic that’s very top of mind here because of the Orchid Show, now in its final week at the Garden (click here for tickets). Fueled by a new-found love of the family Orchidaceae (a classic case of orchid fever), I took a closer look at the design. Was that a slipper orchid? Which one? What was the story behind it?

Turns out the design stemmed from one of the Garden’s great treasures: our Rare Book Collection. At the Lenhardt Library, director Leora Siegel related the history and details.

The drawings are by Henry Lambert, from a portfolio of 20 plates published as Les Orchidées et les Plantes de Serre; Études. The plates are chromotypogravures (a nineteenth-century French style of photolithography); Paris bookseller Armand Guérinet compiled and issued them in portfolio form, rather than as a book, between 1900 and 1910.

PHOTO: Illustrated orchids from Les Orchidees par Henry Lambert.

The portfolio’s title translates as Orchids and Plants of the Greenhouse; Studies.

The portfolio entered the Garden’s collection in 2002 as part of the purchase of the Massachusetts Horticultural Society’s rare books. In need of TLC—“bumpy, bruised, and dirty,” according to Siegel—the loose prints were sent for conservation to the prestigious Northeast Document Conservation Center (NEDCC) in 2011. (Read more about the process in this recent blog.)

Looking lively upon their return in 2012, the plates then became contenders for an interesting project: the development of the Garden’s own line of merchandise to complement the Orchid Show. Of ten finalists, Plate 4 from the portfolio won out, as seen here in the Illinois Digital Archives (page 8).

Two orchids share the plate. The daintier, spotted, clustered flower is identified as Saccolabium giganteum (later re-classified Rhynchostylis gigantea), an orchid that’s native to Myanmar (formerly Burma). In 1893, its habitat was described as “where the hot winds blow and where the thermometer in the dry season is about 45 degrees Celsius (112 degrees Fahrenheit) in the shade….” (Veitch, A Manual of Orchidaceous Plants…).  The American Orchid Society has a nice write-up about this species and its varieties here.

The slipper orchid Cypripedium schrodere is listed in the 1906 Hortus Veitchii as Cypripedium (Selenipedium) x Schröderae, with the note, “It is one of the finest of the Selenipedia hybrids, and was named as a compliment to the late Baroness Schröder of the Dell, Egham.” Nomenclature for lady slipper orchids gets complicated; the American Orchid Society goes deep into the history here.

PHOTO: Montage of orchid-related products in the Garden Shop.

A Mother’s Day (May 11) gift idea: an exclusive Orchid Show item, plus the promise of a trip to the Orchid Show in 2015!

Next, a graphic design specialist worked with the orchid illustrations, using a bit of creative license to fit the prints to the shape of the products: the cut of a coaster, the drape of a tote, the curve of a coffee cup. From that work came the Garden’s exclusive collection—it’s only available online and at the Garden Shop!—of items that are practical, meant for everyday use, yet connected to a deeper story.

Good design transcends time. It’s quiet, yet thought-provoking. Now that I know the story behind the orchid design, I look at my friend’s gift differently.

Come to think of it, it’s time for a nice cup of tea…

©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

We learned about some of the more unusual orchids featured in the Orchid Show (purchase tickets here) when we toured with Boyce Tankersley, director of living plant documentation.

PHOTO: Dendrobium Comet King 'Akatsuki' orchid.

Dendrobium Comet King ‘Akatsuki’

Boyce told us we have 183 taxa of orchids in our plant collections and 53 of those are straight species found in the wild. Of course, none of our orchids are wild-collected because that does damage to the species, so the orchids we acquire are propagated through tissue culture. We display the orchids that do best in our greenhouse growing conditions, and most of those do best in the Tropical Greenhouse.

Some of the orchids Boyce shows us in the video below are Vandas, which are native to the Philippines and other islands in Southeast Asia.

Boyce shared his love of Dendrobiums and revealed a goal to visit an area of the Himalaya Mountains where they cover the oak trees. But watch out: Boyce warns us of leeches in the area! (Don’t worry, we don’t have those in our greenhouses!)

Finally, we examined an interesting ground orchid, Phaius tankervilliae ‘Rabin’s Raven’, which is growing very well in our greenhouse conditions.

Vanda Orchid

Vanda manuvadee

Nun orchid

Phaius tankervilliae ‘Rabin’s Raven’

Click on the video link above or watch on YouTube to get the full tour! The Orchid Show closes March 16, 2014.


©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Making a Splash with Orchids

Undercover Science

Julianne Beck —  March 5, 2014 — Leave a comment

Anne Nies hopped off the corporate ladder and landed in a wetland. There, she was charmed by the enchanting yet elusive white lady’s-slipper orchid (Cypripedium candidum). Or maybe it was the mountain of data that pulled her in.

PHOTO: Anne crouched in the field on a sunny day, in sun hat and gardening gloves, scribbling notes.

Anne Nies at work in the field.

After years of working in management, Nies enrolled in a master’s degree program with the Northwestern University-Chicago Botanic Garden Graduate Program in Plant Biology and Conservation. She was curious to see how she could apply her mastery of numbers and modeling from an earlier degree in mathematics to conservation challenges.

Now 1½ years later, as she prepares to graduate in June, she is completing a study of the state-threatened orchid that has a spotty record of success in Illinois.

Working with more than ten years of data collected by Plants of Concern volunteers, she has sorted through some perplexing trends with the delicate white plants. The orchids showed varied success levels in separate locations that are all classified as high-quality prairie. If the locations were equally strong, then what was causing certain populations to thrive and others to falter?

It was a question Nies had to answer, because, as she explained, when one of these plants perishes, it is almost impossible to restore or replace.

PHOTO: The orchids in the field; surrounded by taller grasses and plants.

White lady’s-slipper orchid can be camouflaged by surrounding foliage.

“What I’m looking at is how the population has access to nutrients in its habitat and how that drives population behavior,” she said. “What are the nutrients that are available to the population, and how does that affect the plants’ behavior, and in particular, how does that affect flowering?”

After a preliminary review of the data, armed her with questions and theories, Nies traveled into the field in the spring and again in the fall for a first-hand analysis.

The initial challenge was to actually find the plant. When it isn’t flowering, white lady’s-slipper blends in easily with surrounding foliage. So she learned where to look and found herself returning again and again to wet and sandy locations, such as wetlands, within the prairie ecosystem.

“Orchids in general tend to be really specific in their habitat,” she said. “I realized there was probably something really different between the prairie as a whole where the orchids live and the specific spot where they are growing.” 

Nies brought back samples of plant tissue, soil, and even root tissue where fungus lives to the Garden’s Soil Laboratory in the Daniel F. and Ada L. Rice Plant Conservation Science Center for exploration.

She hoped to find that a high level of fungus, which lives in the roots of many orchid species, was leading to the healthier populations. But that wasn’t what she found. 

PHOTO: Microscopic image of beneficial orchid fungi.

Helpful fungi live in the roots of orchids and can be identified through a microscope.

Lab results showed that in locations with nutrient-rich soil, the plants had high levels of the beneficial fungi. They also had low levels of photosynthesis—the internal process that creates food from sunlight for a plant. They were not doing very well.

In locations where the plants had higher levels of photosynthesis, Nies found that they had soil low in nutrients.

“What I’m hoping is that knowing the nutrient levels and the high sand composition can help maybe inform land managers and also with the propagation of this orchid,” she said.

Nies plans to incorporate this information with her pending conclusions into her final thesis for her master’s program, before going on to pursue a doctoral degree in the near future.

Much like math, according to Nies, everything is connected in botany, which is what makes it appealing to study. “One of the reasons I’m so interested in orchids is because they are so deeply connected to their habitat,” she explained.

PHOTO: Anne Nies.

Anne Nies explores the Tropical Greenhouse.

Even though she has transitioned to botany, Nies will surely stay connected to her background in pure math, bringing a new perspective and skills to mounting scientific challenges. “It’s amazing to me how much we still don’t know, and how much is out there that still needs to be learned,” she said.

When she has time to wander, Nies heads to the Garden’s Tropical Greenhouse, where there is always another plant calling her name.

©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Darwin’s Orchid and the Wardian Case

History makes an appearance at the Orchid Show this winter

Mike Kwiatek —  February 26, 2014 — 1 Comment

There’s something very special about this orchid. Can you tell what it is?

PHOTO: Closeup of Angraecum sesquipedale bloom.

A native of Madagascar, Angraecum sesquipedale is an epiphyte that prefers the drier branches and trunks of trees as a host.

 

The nectar of this orchid resides almost entirely at the tip of the orchid's spur.

The nectar of this orchid resides almost entirely at the tip of the orchid’s spur.

If you guessed that it was the long tubular structure coming from the back of the flower, you are right! That spur contains energy-packed nectar and is the reason this plant has a place in history.

Discovery

Angraecum sesquipedale was first described in 1822 by French botanist Louis-Marie Aubert du Petit-Thouars and would be shrouded in mystery for decades after. It arrived in the United Kingdom 33 years later.

ILLUSTRATION: an illustrated plate of Angraecum sesquipedale from 1822.

An illustration of Angraecum sesquipedale from Histoire particulière des plantes orchidées recueillies sur les trois îles australes D’Afrique de France, de Bourbon et de Madagascar (1822) .

At the time  this orchid was discovered, transporting plants from one continent to another was extremely difficult and often unreasonable. The long sea journey, combined with polluted conditions in industrialized cities, made it difficult to collect and maintain specimen plants. This would all soon change.

It was in 1829 that Nathaniel Bagshaw Ward discovered the mechanism that revolutionized horticulture and botany forever. 

The Wardian Case

Nathaniel Bagshaw Ward was an English doctor who spent most of his life in eighteenth-century London. In his youth, he perused the writings of Linnaeus and spent some time in Jamaica, which fostered his love of entomology and botany. As an adult, Ward was inspired to create a wall of ferns and mosses in his own yard, but failed due to the polluted air of East London. He was distraught.

In the summer of 1829, Ward took a glass jar and placed a hawkmoth chrysalis inside, atop a bed of moist leaf mold. Ward regularly checked on the progress of the moth, finding that before it hatched, grasses and a fern emerged from the leaf mold. Ward observed that the glass jar retained moisture because as it warmed up, water evaporated, condensed on the glass, and returned to the base of the jar, never escaping. With this success he repeated his experiment and, to his delight, found that he could keep plants growing within the chamber for years. His discovery brought about the invention of the Wardian case, the predecessor to the modern terrarium. He wrote extensively about this in his book, On the Growth of Plants in Closely Glazed Cases. Soon the Wardian case became a popular feature of the parlor in Victorian society. These parlor versions, both tabletop and freestanding forms, often held one or more plants and could be rather ornate.

PHOTO: A large Wardian case, made of steel and glass—an individual greenhouse for an orchid.

One of four Wardian cases appearing in our Orchid Show this year. Wardian cases like this one could be found in parlors of wealthy Victorians.

In 1843, the Wardian case was used for the first time to bring plants from China by sea. The director of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, observed that in 15 years, the Wardian case brought six times as many plants as had been imported in the last century. If you do the math, that means it made importing plants almost 40 times as efficient as regular ocean travel! This was of particular use to collectors like James Bateman, a wealthy landowner who sponsored several plant exploration trips through the Royal Horticultural Society. One such trip would bring several rare Angraecum sesquipedale from Madagascar to England, and in 1862, this plant would find its way to one of the prominent figures in history.

Charles Darwin

By 1862, Charles Darwin had already become a prominent figure internationally. Having published On the Origin of Species three years earlier, Darwin was already the subject of scrutiny by religious groups and scientists who disagreed with his theories on evolution and natural selection. In this same year that he received a number of orchids from Bateman, Darwin published his book The Various Contrivances by Which Orchids are Fertilised by Insects, which proposed that Angraecum sesquipedale must be pollinated by a “huge moth with a wonderfully long proboscis” (or straw-like tongue). He proposed that it might be a Sphingidae moth since these are typically large. No such moth was known to exist on Madagascar.

Though largely overlooked by the public, his proposal became a subject of controversy, particularly in the religious community. Critics attributed any existence of such a creature to be by divine will and not natural selection; most mocked the possibility of such a moth existing. Others viewed his prediction with skepticism since only smaller moths had been discovered in Madagascar.

PHOTO: Morgan's sphinx moth, with its 30-centimeter tongue unrolled to show its length.

Morgan’s Sphinx moth, the predicted pollinator. Photo by Esculapio (Own work) [GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

In 1903, 21 years following Darwin’s death, a subspecies of moth known as Xanthopan morgani praedicta, Morgan’s Sphinx moth, was found in Madagascar. This moth has a wingspan of 5 to 6 inches and a proboscis of 10 to 12 inches long. The subspecies name, praedicta, was intended as an homage to Darwin’s prediction that such an insect existed.

Angraecum sesquipedale, frequently referred to as Darwin’s Orchid, is currently being displayed in the Greenhouse Gallery of the Orchid Show (purchase tickets here) this year.

©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

How to Select a Good Orchid

Anne Nies —  February 18, 2014 — Leave a comment

After visiting the Orchid Show (purchase tickets here), you may be inspired to try growing an orchid in your home, but for the new orchid grower, selecting an orchid may seem overwhelming. Here are a few tips to get you started. 

(Can’t play the movie above? Watch here on YouTube.)

A healthy orchid.

A healthy orchid. Notice the plump pseudobulbs (stems), smooth green leaves, and beautiful flowers. If you look closely, you’ll even see new buds forming.

1. Know yourself, your growing environment, and what you’re buying.

Orchids live in a wide variety of habitats and come in a wide variety of sizes, so you’ll want to make sure that you choose one that’s well suited to your home and to your schedule. For example: if you have lots of bright, direct sun in your home, a Cattleya will do very well, but a Phalaenopsis may struggle. If you have questions about an orchid’s growing conditions, you can always ask the grower you’re buying from, or check out the American Orchid Society’s Culture Sheets. Also, make sure that your plant has a tag identifying it, or that you get its name and put a tag in the pot right away. There are thousands of orchid species and hybrids, and often it’s difficult to identify a plant on the flower alone. Having a tag will help you to always remember what species or hybrid your orchid is.

2. Choose a plant you really like.

This may sound obvious, but orchids aren’t like other house plants. Most only flower once a year  so you will probably need some good motivation to keep caring for it when it’s not in flower. Also, sometimes the shock of moving from the greenhouse to your house will cause orchids to skip a year in flowering. Don’t lose all hope though! There are some orchids that flower continuously for most of the year, and others from which you can get multiple flowerings in a year.

3. Only buy a healthy plant.

PHOTO: Closeup of an adult soft brown scale with offspring (tiny pollen-sized dots).

Soft brown scale (Coccus hesperidum) and offspring on Phalaenopsis.

The easiest way to tell if a plant is healthy is to look at it. It should have smooth green leaves, fleshy, plump pseudobulbs (if present), and no bugs. Discoloration and spotting of the leaves may be due to cultural conditions, but it may also be a sign that the plant has a virus. Unlike people, orchids don’t recover from viruses. Like people, however, they can spread the virus to other plants in and around your home.

Leaf pitting, scaring, and holes also may be cultural, but more likely are an indication of bugs. Bugs are small and can be difficult to spot. Some examples are soft brown scale and the longtailed mealybug. These bugs are quite common and quite difficult to get rid of once you have them. They survive by feeding on the sap of the plant, sucking away its life and leaving behind ugly marks. Although the adult bugs are usually easy to spot, the juveniles are easy to miss because they’re tiny and hard to see.

PHOTO: An otherwise healthy orchid shows a yellowing leaf with pale scale spots.

Yellowing and pitted leaves are signs of the stress this orchid is suffering because of a scale infection.

PHOTO: Closeup of an adult longtailed mealybug with young.

Close-up of an adult longtailed mealybug with offspring.

4. Consider the flower.

You have basically two choices when buying an orchid: buy one that’s flowering or about to flower, or buy one that’s not in flower. Especially for the beginning grower, buying orchids in flower is often the better choice. The biggest reason is that you get to see your orchid flower at least once. People who grow orchids will readily tell you about how many they’ve killed—it’s just part of the learning process. If you buy your plants in flower and they die, it’s not really any worse than buying a bouquet of cut flowers. (Orchids are about the same price, and the flowers last much longer.) Another reason to buy when the plant is flowering is so that you can be sure that you like the flower, and that it has no abnormalities that you find unattractive. 

5. Look for new growth.

This is an indication that the plant is doing well and will continue to do well. Often, next year’s flowers come from this year’s growth, so if there’s no growth, there may also be no blooms. You can find new growth in two ways: new leaves or green tips on the roots. Roots sticking out of the pot are no problem and are the easiest to check.

Find an orchid at the Orchid Marketplace, open weekends throughout the Orchid Show.


©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org