Friday, October 7, 2011

Charles Darwin's passion for orchids is catching

Followers of my blog will be familiar with the orchid growing in our garden: its origins (as a half -dead (tree trunk) and half- live (clump of orchids) present), and its development from bud through to flowering. This week, my Cymbidium caniculatum is in full glorious bloom.

The name orchid usually brings to mind an exotic display in a florist's window, or lush blossoms in a damp tropical rainforest. The fact that orchids also thrive in the semi-arid country of outback Queensland is something I didn't know until we lived here.

Cymbidium caniculatum (one of about 50 Cymbidium species growing from India to Japan to Australia) has distinctive curved rigid channelled leaves which collect moisture in what is a relatively low rainfall region.

Yesterday I picked a near-perfect orchid bloom and placed it in a vase with the aim of attempting a drawing. Before putting pencil to paper, however, I broke off one of the flowers and pulled it apart: three petals and three petal-like sepals. On looking more closely I saw a column, stigma, cap, ovary and two waxy balls containing pollen. One of the petals, the lip, was larger than the rest, and white. Its purpose is to attract pollinating insects (usually a bee) and then to provide a landing platform -- rather like an airport runway.

My interest in orchids began when I was offered the opportunity to research and write a book about Charles Darwin. Several years later Charles Darwin's Big Idea was published by Hyland House in Melbourne, and was shortlisted in the CBC Awards.

During my research, I became aware of Darwin's fascination with orchids -- and it was catching! Of particular interest to me was the fact that each orchid species attracts its own special kind of insect for pollination.

With up to 60 flowers on each flower spike, the bees are busy around my clump of orchids!

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