26 July 2006

Orchids and leather

After reading FJ's comments on the kinkiness of orchids, I've decided to have an opinion poll. So what I'd like you all to do, is share your views on the following:

To quote FJ: do you think there's something about the shape of orchid flowers that is
somehow more obscene than your regular garden variety daisy? In other words, are orchids obscene, overtly sexual vegetable likenesses of human reproductive anatomy? Luscious pink folds; musky scents; inflated, veined pouches; dripping nectar. Orchids are, as Uncle Monty from Withnail and I would put it "prostitutes for the bees". Is that where a lot of our fascination with them lies? How come orchids seem to be especially popular with geriatrics, then? Is an orchid show a venue to show off your 'fertility' well after the battery of your biological clock fell out? Evolutionary speaking, orchids have their origins in the hot, steamy lowlands of South East Asia. This is also where snakes evolved. Both are symbols of sexuality. South East Asia is also a hotspot for sex tourism. Coincidence? The word orchid is derived from the Greek word orchis, meaning testicle. The underground tubers of Orchis were traditionally used as aphrodisiacs and to increase fertility. Is the giving of orchids a more intimate affair than just buying a lover a bunch of carnations? Something more lusty?

21 July 2006

A world paralysed by genetic mutation

There's something delicious about the graphic quality of the covers designed for Penguin paperbacks during the 1960's. They are renowned for their dark, suggestive images and remain very popular under Penguin Collectors. The cover layout of this period was designed by Romek Marber and introduced in 1962. The Marber Grid uses different weights of the Intertype Standard typeface, which is a version of Berthold's lovely and rounded Akzidenz Grotesk. This layout allows a lot of room for an illustrative element, compared to Penguin covers from the 1950's.

My favourite among the Marber Grid covers, and probably my favourite cover design of all time, is for The Chrysalids, by
John Wyndham. My copy is a 1965 reprint inherited from my mother and is one of the only books she ever wrote her name in. It therefore holds a certain amount of sentimental value for me. For the anoraks out there, it's Penguin no. 1308 (this was in the decades before ISBN numbers were implemented by the company). The cover illustration is by John Griffiths and features a simple hand print the colour of dried blood. Simple, elegant, beautiful.

But look closer, for that hand has six fingers on it...

"When I did succeed in getting the foot free, it looked queer: I mean, it was all twisted and puffy - I didn't even notice then that it had more than the usual number of toes...."

The Chrysalids, written in 1955, is a great example of 1950's post-apocalyptic science fiction. It brings together all of our fears about nuclear disaster and the harsh realities of DNA: mutation, religious extremism, sterilization, wastelands, human suffering, eugenics, exile, the wrath of God, evolution. The characters in the book have to survive in a barren world hundreds of years after some nuclear holocaust. They uphold the belief that Man is created in God's image and that any deviation from the image is a mockery of that sacred bond. When a mother gives birth to a mutant child, the very act of giving it life is blasphemy.

"The enemies of God besiege us. They seek to strike at Him through us. Unendingly they work to distort the true image; through our weaker vessels they attempt to defile the race. You have sinned, woman, search your heart, and you will know that you have sinned."

Mutant crops are burned. Mutant livestock is slaughtered. But the true fear of the ignorant is that Deviation might manifest itself in themselves. Therefore extra digits are amputated, mutant newborns are hidden from the authorities... or killed. But the abominations and edge dwellers do not take abuse lying down and the story really takes off when a group of supposedly normal children discover their ability to communicate telepathically with one another and then start to seek out others of their kind.

"One of the hands which held a bow had six fingers; one man displayed a head like a polished brown egg, without a hair on it, or on his face; another had immensely large feet and hands; but whatever was wrong with the rest was hidden under their rags."

Yet the way of life on this planet has always decreed that new species supercede the old. The 'normal' people are unwilling to accept this change, which is what makes them obsolete. In the wasteland of the future, adaptedness has been sacrificed for adaptibility. A new central dogma of biology. Out of the chrysalis of our former selves, our new improved design will emerge. It is inevitable.

"The living form defies evolution at its peril; if it does not adapt, it will be broken. The idea of completed man is the supreme vanity: the finished image is a sacrilegous myth."

The Chrysalids is as powerful and relevant in the 21st century as when it was written more than half a century ago. And this from the man who wrote that dreadful book The Day of the Triffids...

20 July 2006


I woke up this morning at about 08:30. Yes, I'm still giving my circadian clock free reign. As I walked into the kitchen, I heard an eerie noise outside: teeoo, teeoo, teeoo. Initially, I assumed that it must be a distressed cat, or maybe a small child. Staring at the neighbour's roof, I tried to locate the origin of this strange and sad noise. Suddenly a large, dark bird almost 50cm long spread its wings and flew out of a nearby leopard tree, still making that forlorn call. I held my breath. It circled once, then flapped and glided in a sine curve pattern, heading east. This was not the normal straight flight pattern of a sparrow. It was exotic, indolent, sinuous. Tropical. I felt like I had seen a roc straight out of The One Thousand And One Nights. I waited outside for a long time, but it did not return.

It was a Tockus nasutus, or African grey hornbill. It must have been lost: this is a Bushveld bird, an omnivore of the savannah. It does not occur on the Highveld and definitely not in built-up areas. This is what I like about living in Africa. Every once in a while you'll read in the newspaper about a leopard that got into someone's back yard, or about a hippo cooling off in a municipal swimming pool. No matter how much urban sprawl, commerce and human greed destroys the beauty and diversity of nature, something will survive. And thrive.

"Tweedledum and Tweedledee
Agreed to have a battle;
For Tweedledum said Tweedledee
Had spoiled his nice new rattle .

Just then flew down a monstrous crow,
As black as a tar-barrel;
Which frightened both the heroes so,
They quite forgot their quarrel."

- Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll (1865)

May some magnificent creature frighten you out of your quarrels today.

7 July 2006

Brain Leakage

Interesting day already. After driving the 14km from home to get to the lab, I realise that I never downloaded my progress report off my computer at home. I need to hand this in today, so that our research group can compile our annual research report for the Winter Cereal Trust. These are the people who fund our research.

Oh, well. I suppose this is what comes of staying up until 02:30 in the morning, drawing one gene expression graph after another. Now I'll have to go back home to get it. It's funny how things tend to slow down when you're so damn close to the end. My skull is stuffed with cotton wool. Think I also left my sense of humour at home. Hmmm...

6 July 2006

In The Greenhouse (07/06)

We have not seen the worst of the cold fronts yet, but June has been a chilly month nevertheless. The fan heater in the greenhouse is now timed to go on for 15 minutes every hour as soon as it gets dark. The Phalaenopsis in particular are looking a little worse for wear and have lost a number of leaves. Winter is also the time for orchid shows and I have three new aquisitions to show off in this post. Curiously enough, all three of these have bright yellow flowers. I must subconsciously be trying to add a little sunshine to the grey weeks ahead.

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Laeliocattleya Antinea 'Copper King'. In 2003 I went to the greenhouses of MC Orchids looking for large pastel Cattleyas. Carol Erasmus, the friendly owner, suggested I take this plant, which had a very large new growth and seemed like a strong grower. Usually I'm quite wary of buying things without open flowers or exact knowledge of what they will look like, but I trusted Carol on this one. And I was so glad I did when it finally bloomed in September 2004. Since then it has flowered regularly from the newly matured pseudobulbs, usually at 9 month intervals. It truly is a royal addition to my collection. Each flower segment exceeds 10cm in length and is captivatingly coloured in shades of coral and peach.The labellum and general stature of this grex owes much to the rare Colombian Cattleya dowiana, which features prominently in its pedigree. A heady scent like hyacinths fills any room graced by its presence.

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Masdevallia Orange Ice. Masdevallias are small cool growing orchids from the misty cloud forests of the Andes. This yummy newcomer looks good enough to lick, just like a citrus-flavoured ice lolly. The tubular structure formed by the fused sepals is covered with minute crystalline hairs on the inside, giving it a beautiful iridescent sheen.

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Dendrobium Dal's Glory x Blue Twinkle. This unregistered hybrid has produced two inflorescences this year, one from the newly matured and one from last year's growth. The buds on these flower spikes are taking a really long time to open, though. I suspect this is because I grow this hardcane Dendrobium under shade net outside, where it doesn't receive much warmth. I like to think that the cold temperatures make the flowers a tad darker and more longlasting had I grown it in the greenhouse. The white anther cap is unsual an makes a nice contrast to the rest of the flower.

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Degarmoara Flying High 'Stars & Bars'. This is where I believe popular taste in orchids is heading. The market is saturated with rounded pink and white Phalaenopsis, and people are looking for something modern and edgy. Degarmoara is a 'synthetic' modern hybrid between the three related genera Brassia, Miltonia and Odontoglossum, which were particularly popular in the Victorian Age. The tropical Brassia genes make the flowers large and starry/spidery, whereas the genes from the more temperate Odontoglossum and Miltonia have influenced the broad lip and barred patterning. These plants have attractive tropical-looking foliage and are tolerant of a wide range of conditions. I can really recommend it for anybody looking for an easy orchid with a lot of impact.

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Epidendrum Pacific Girl. An irresistably yellow reedstem Epidendrum with some of the largest flowers I have ever seen on this kind of orchid. I got it from Afri-Orchids at the ONT show this year and really like the spoon-shaped petals artfully shaded with orange.

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Potinara Jong Jou Moat. This is a brand new Asian grex comprising the four genera Sophronitis, Laelia, Brassavola and Cattleya. It is superb and I'm really pleased with it. The plant is quite tall with big, deep green leaves like a Cattleya, but with a long flower spike emerging from the sheath to carry the starry flowers well above the foliage like a Laelia. The flowers are sure to last well and have superb balance and colour intensity.

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Sophrolaeliocattleya Seagulls Newton Abbot. This trigeneric hybrid was registered in 1982. Its parents are Sophrolaelia Psyche and Laeliocattleya Muriel Turner. I've reflowered this plant over several years now and have noticed an interesting phenomenon. If grown moist and in shade, the flowers and general appearance of the newest pseudobulb resemble Sophronitis coccinea, one of the plants in its ancestry. This orchid is found growing epiphytically in dark wet forests in southern Brazil. If I move it into a high light area with more restricted watering, the new pseudobulb and flowers more closely resemble those of the lithophytic Laelias in its ancestry, such as Laelia milleri and Laelia cinnabarina. Interesting to observe how the relevant sets of genes get switched on when the conditions change!

3 July 2006

The orchidhunter does ONT2006

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"I was so delighted with the plant and flowers that I caught orchid fever, which I am happy to say is now prevailing to considerable extent in this country, and which I will trust will become an epidemic."
- General John F. Rathbone

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It was a grey day; the vitality had been sucked out of the world. Clouds the colour of concrete blanketed the suburbs as I drove to the Safari Garden Centre on the corner of Lynnwood and Rubida Road. This was the venue for the annual winter show of the Orchid Society of Northern Transvaal. A R10,00 ticket bought me entry into a tropical paradise in the middle of the Highveld winter. The theme for this year's show was Orchids on Safari and the displays were all quite tasteful, compared to the 2005 show which featured an inordinate amount of garden gnomes. The exhibition hall was filled with light, colour, perfume and the delicate sounds of piped-in recorded bird noises. Oh, and pensioners aplenty.

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The little old ladies and I did the rounds. Right by the entrance was a magnificent display of Paphiopedilum Ho Chi Minh en masse, constructed by Plantae nursery. I'm convinced that these are some of the very first plants of this hybrid between Paph. delenatii and the newly discovered Paph. vietnamense to enter the country.

In the middle was a grand central display containing a number of plants owned by the blue-eyed, swoop-haired Herman Steyn, the chairman of ONT. These are always instantly recognizable by their bent wire supports and strapped-in appearance. Cattleyas and Dendrobiums march like SS combat troops across the staging in Herman's super-neat Faerie Glen greenhouse, which often flies a German flag from its flagpost. This central display hosted an incredibly beautiful citrus-coloured vandaceous orchid called Vanda Kultana Gold x Thanamchai, wih superbly rounded and very flat flowers.

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A Cymbidium Claude with enormous burnt sienna blooms of perfect stature was elected class winner and reserve champion.

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Predictably, the ONT judges gave the grand champion ribbon to a Paphiopedilum. Surprisingly, it was actually a beautiful plant, instead of the inbred bullfrogs that usually get the top award. It was an elegantly proportioned Paphiopedilum mastersianum with a deep green dorsal sepal fading to pure white around its edges and a bronze self-coloured pouch. No gross veins or resemblance to a scrotum this time around, thank you very much. Both grand champ and reserve were grown by Van Rooyen Orchids from White River.

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The East Rand Orchid Society had made a large table display sagging under the weight of pink and white Cymbidium hybrids, green Maudiae-type Paphiopedilums, a yellow softcane Dendrobium and something I had never seen before.This plant is called Robiquetia compressor and was awarded a red 1st class ribbon. It had purple strap-shaped leaves alternating along a compressed monopodial stem, from which emerged a single pendent inflorescence of minute, deep-red, berry-like flowers. I envied the anonymous grower who managed to flower such a splendid exotic thing.

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The tiny triangular display by G&S Orchids was crammed full of plants to resemble a forest floor of office plants. This was constructed by my friends Christian and Dirk and featured quotes from Susan Orlean's The Orchid Thief and not entirely un-kitsch 'artefacts left by a band of Victorian explorers'. Maybe I'm biased, but I thought this display was best at capturing the spirit of this year's safari theme. An eye-catching Paph. armeniacum nodded in a nest of Spanish moss, and Dirk's gorgeous velvety-red Miltoniopsis Redford Glory attracted many admirers of the hip-replacement-and-purple-rinse variety.

Mounded in a corner, the display of award-winning Phalaenopsis attracted several journalists with tripods and cameras with macro lenses to put the Hubble to shame. These people had no qualms about moving annoying flower spikes out of their perfect shot. While mothers were telling their offspring to look with their eyes, there was nobody to berate these people for deconstructing delicate displays that took their owners a full day to put together. Even though I couldn't read the obscured name tags of some orchids, I didn't lift a leaf of a plant that didn't belong to me. Evil growers have been known to steal pollen from award-winning plants at shows. I definitely did not want trouble.

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The most photographed orchid was a soft pink Phalaenopsis with a highly complicated Chinese name. This cultivar was apparently flowered by Herman Steyn's wife. I do not know how the people who hybridised it managed it, but each flower had an almost perfect inverted equilateral triangle of purple spotting on it. With this kind of line breeding in mottled moth orchids, the individual flowers on a plant usually show much variation on the basic pattern of spots. All the flowers on this plant were identical however, and the plant was rightly selected as the winner in its class.

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My favourite part of any orchid show is always the sale area. It's the place where I spend most of my time, agonising over whether a particular orchid is worth spending my hard-earned cash on. The sale area hummed with commerce. Some of you may not realize this, but orchids are BIG MONEY. Rare specimens are known to sell for anything up to $25,000. The global mass-market orchid trade is worth millions of dollars annually. Asian orchid nurseries are measured not in the numbers of plants they cultivate, but by the kilometres of greenhouse space required to house them. I saw Roelie from Van Rooyen Orchids idly chatting to Nollie from Plantae (those really are their names), and you wouldn't notice that they are in fierce, cut-throat, back-stabbing competition with one another if you weren't looking at their eyes. Their eyes were constantly scanning the crowds for that rich psycho woman who's got orchid fever really bad and needs an immediate fix. For you see: the sight of all these lusciously sexual flowers on sale turns people into raving lunatics. Christian told me that a woman started trembling uncontrollably when she entered the sales area at the Witwatersrand Orchid Society show this past May.

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Personally, I saw a woman point her finger encrusted with Jenna Clifford at hideously overpriced, mass-produced, over-hybridised mutants, going 'Oh honey, and I'll take three of those!' with the husband trailing behind, pushing a trolley overflowing with purchases, obviously dying for a smoke. The impulse to buy something before someone else gets it, this desire to own something exclusive no matter how ugly it is, is a big driving force in the economics of luxury, I'm convinced.
Freakonomics of the orchid world.

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So whereas all the bourgeois nouveau riche walked away with orchids dripping with overblown (pun intended) purple blossoms, I tried to take time in making my selections. In the end, only three of the ten plants I bought were in flower. An orchid sale is a difficult thing to browse through when you have the completist gene and you see so many curious and lovely things to want. Serendipity Orchids were selling Aspasia lunata and the Chinese nursery from Bloemfontein had some amazingly flat white and cute green Phalaenopsis (their business card had purple print that read 'Marvilous Orchids' in typical Engrish). As usual, most of my budget was blown at the stand operated by the friendly people from Afri-Orchids. They have an excellent selection of strange miniatures and weird species from the Neotropical cloud forests. I also managed to find a flowering-size red Phragmipedium hybrid at a stand operated by a hobby grower called Lukas Coetzer. My Phrag was overlooked by all the punters, possibly because it doesn't seem like much when not in flower. But oh, the promise it holds! Here then is the obligatory list of things I bought:

-Pleurothallis truncata
-Pleurothallis prolifera

-Dendrobium glomeratum
-Dendrobium lindleyi
-Rhyncolaelia glauca
-Cochleanthes amazonica
-Masdevallia Orange Ice
-Epidendrum Pacific Girl
-Phragmipedium Mem. Dick Clements
-Potinara Jong Jou Moat

All in all a most pleasurable experience. My thirst for beauty has been slaked for now. The National Orchid Show is coming, though: 7-10 September 2006 at Casterbridge in White River. What wonders will the future hold?

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"The flower is a leaf mad with love."
- Johann Wolfgang von Goethe