SUNDAY MAGAZINE

Orchid haven

A very rare epiphyte, endemic to the upper Nilgiris - Robiquetia josephiana (Manilal & Satish)

A very rare epiphyte, endemic to the upper Nilgiris - Robiquetia josephiana (Manilal & Satish)  

The Nilgiris is a prime habitat for numerous species of these flowers, providing a feast for the eyes, says TARUN CHHABRA.

THE Nilgiris has some of the most varied ecosystems — from the shola-grassland "climax" ecosystem, the wet evergreen "rain forests" of the western slopes, the moist and dry deciduous jungles, to the lowland scrub forests and savannah. Not surprisingly then, this mosaic landscape is a prime habitat for numerous species of wild orchids. More precisely, over 120 species representing 60 genera, out of the more than 200 species found in peninsular India. Added to this is the fact that 10 species are endemic.

There are also some species that have their closest relatives only in the distant Himalayas and yet others with cousins in southeast Asia and Sri Lanka. In the Nilgiris, the bulk of the orchids are residents of the large forests on slopes and foothills. The upland shola-grassland have comparatively lesser number of species, albeit rare and endangered ones. The paucity in this area is perhaps due to the low temperature and humidity along with the fact that the typical sholas are receding over the past several thousand years.

John Lindley (1799-1865) is considered to be the father of modern orchidology and he named several species sent to him by collectors from the Nilgiris like Robert Wight (who was actually a surgeon with the East India Company, but went on to become one of the greatest botanists), Van Rheede, Beddome, Jerdon, Barnes and others. In modern times, eminent botanists like J. Joseph, Manilal & Sathish Kumar have continued the tradition of naming genera and novel species of orchids from the Nilgiris and adjacent areas.

The exquisite "jewel" orchid - Anoectochilus elatus (Lindl).

The exquisite "jewel" orchid - Anoectochilus elatus (Lindl).  

Orchids are biologically highly complex plants with an evolutionary history of millions of years. They grow on land — terrestrial, on trees — epiphytic (not parasitic however), on rocks — lithophytic (many are both epiphytic and lithophytic). Very few actually grow on decaying organic matter — saprophytic. The common factor amongst orchids is that they all have three sepals and three petals like some other families. But what distinguishes them both morphologically and botanically from all other plants is that one of the petals is strikingly different and called the lip. The astonishing variations in the morphology of the lip have enabled them to be classified under different groups or genera. This has also certainly given them the status of the most sought after flowering plants in the world. In some species, the lip resembles closely an old fashioned lady's slipper and thus is commonly called by this sobriquet. Others have the lip totally resembling a female insect of one of the principal pollinating species. This misleads the male insect into pseudo-copulation and thus effects the process of pollination. In most cases, the lip is the distinctive and "seductive" part — to the pollinator.

In addition to the lip form, the other most attractive facets of orchids are their striking colour combinations. Perhaps every possible shade except black is represented. The aim of the unique morphology and colouring patterns is not however to attract humans, but specific pollinating insects. For this reason, pollination can often fail and the seed not set, due to the fact that the specific pollinator has not visited the plant. Hence these pollinators have to be protected if the orchids themselves are not to disappear. Nevertheless, humans are attracted and intrigued towards these plants — a small country like Thailand earns foreign exchange worth Rs.168 crores annually from the orchid trade. This country has a base of fabulous looking natural species and with new tissue culture and marketing techniques, has helped achieve this success. The species marketed are new hybrid varieties. Tamil Nadu is one of the few States with a specialised orchidarium — situated at Yercaud (Shillong in the north-east has the best one).

Orchids are often called as the "aristocrats" among flowers. Although orchids as flowers of rare beauty and their cultivation have become popular only in more recent times, indigenous communities have used them since ancient times. And not just as objects of sheer beauty, but for a variety of practical purposes. Confucius mentioned them as plants of great refinement and it was Greek philosopher Theophrastus, who first coined the name "orchis" from which the word orchid is derived. A well-known orchid genus vanda, has its name derived from Sanskrit.

A spider-like ground orchid - Habenaria rariflora (A. Rich).

A spider-like ground orchid - Habenaria rariflora (A. Rich).  

The indigenous people of the upper Nilgiris — the Todas, have used different species for specific purposes. For example, they have consumed the dried and powdered tubers of the terrestrial orchid Satyrium nepalense as an energising tonic. The Toda name for this grassland species is Ezhtkwehhdr — which literally means "bullock's horns". This name refers to the bullock horn-like resemblance provided by the twin spurs of these flowers. As very few orchid species have double spurs and at the back portion of the flowers, the Todas were very much aware of this botanical oddity, along with their medicinal value. Orchids could have utilitarian aspects as well — the species Calanthe triplicata, with its enormous leaves, has been used to fabricate a vessel to hold honey harvested within the forest. And the Toda name for this species translates aptly as: "honey leaves"!

In the Nilgiris, you can see orchids flowering in their natural habitat right through the year. Of course, the wet season provides the "peak" for them to bloom in profusion — especially the terrestrial species. The Nilgiris has 17 species of orchids belonging to the Habenaria genus and it is usual to see hundreds of these, flowering side by side on a single grassy and rocky slope. And these could be representing half a dozen species — all with a bizarre morphology. Some of these resemble an elephant with a trunk, a spider and another, a hooded doll. Incredibly, these species complete their flowering cycles within a few weeks and make way for other plants of other families. No selfish desire to prolong their life cycles here!

A rare ground orchid Disperis neilgherrensis has blooms that are striking beyond belief. They look like as if Donald duck has stepped right out of a comic book! Even amongst epiphytes, mass flowering provides for a veritable feast for the eye. Coelogyne nervosa paints entire cliff faces white in August and the gorgeous Aerides crispa with fragrant pink and white flowers, makes inanimate looking rocks and boulders come to life during the dry season.

A lady's slipper orchid.

A lady's slipper orchid.  

Among the endemic species, we were able to relocate Liparis biloba recently. Another striking species Peristylis aristatus was also found, thus extending its range into the Nilgiris. The "jewel" orchid Anoectochilus elatus is a fabulous species with golden coloured lateral sepals (hence presumably, the "jewel" appendage to the name) and the rest of the flower is white and very striking. Another rare species, Robiquetia josephiana (Manilal & Sathish) was found in the Nilgiris and is endemic to this and adjacent areas. There is one of the smallest genera amongst orchids — called Sirhookera, commemorating the pre-eminent botanist J.D. Hooker. This genus consists of only two species and both are represented in the Nilgiris. There are however, alarmingly, some species like Bulbophyllum kaitiense that have not been located for over 100 years. On the positive side, there may yet be others awaiting detection and description. But unless the natural orchid habitat of the Nilgiris is saved from continuing destruction, several species are doomed to extinction.

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