Pages

23 March 2008

Dark desires: the black orchids

Soundless, unseen, the plants of the Northern Hemisphere are mobilizing resources. Spring is a time of stimulation: the environment stimulates trees and bulbs to burst into bloom; and these colourful signs of life born anew in turn stimulate the senses. Gardeners have been preparing for the new planting season, eager for some green to break the monotony of winter. Soon, pink will be everywhere.

However, we can find much inspiration in the fashionably monochromatic shades of winter. Bright days and garish planting schemes can be countered with something a little more subdued, perhaps a little bit Gothic. Deviant blooms smoulder in the humid depths of the greenhouse to satisfy the erotic nightmares of even the most ardent Transylvanian. Truly black orchids are sexy and mysterious creatures, all the more sought after because of their purported elusiveness. For those who like their orchids on the kinky side, (E&E)² presents five sultry seductresses who will tempt you with their dark beauty. And then probably bite your head off.


Cattleya aclandiae. Orchids that lay claim to the 'black' epithet are not, exactly, black. Orchids do not produce black pigments, instead relying on combinations of red and purple anthocyanins to darken their petals. The effect is obvious in this little Cattleya, which has waxy petals splashed with dark red pigments over a green background. The result is probably more akin to the colour of dark chocolate than true black. Nevertheless, it flaunts a curious colour scheme. Its outrageous hot pink labellum and shiny PVC-like surfaces would not look out of place in the closet of a well-equiped dominatrix. In reality it thrives in the balmy seabreezes blowing through forests on the Brazilian coast.

Dracula roezlii. Names can be deceiving. This abomination does not stalk the dark forests of Stoker's Romania, but the high cloud forests of Colombia. They are related to the more brightly-coloured Masdevallia, but Dracula orchids can be distinguished by the inflated labellum in the centre. This structure kind of resembles the gills of a mushroom; the flowers are often visited by small fungus gnats, the presumed pollinators. Because these orchids require cool temperatures and very high humidity, they are notoriously difficult to keep alive, let alone flower well. They are almost never exhibited at orchid shows, altough I've heard stories of intricate terrariums with in-built fans and misters specially constructed to display them in. Their sinister appearance always attracts attention, as the names given to other members of the genus attest: D. vampira, D. nosferatu, D. diabola, D. chimaera, and D. lotax (well, clowns are scary).

Maxillaria schunkeana.
Discovered as recently as 1993 in the coastal rainforest of Brazil, this miniature orchid packs a wicked punch. The name of the genus describes the way the labellum is fused to the column, thereby resembling a jawbone. Traditionally, the Maxillarias are a rather neglected group of orchids - do not expect to see one at your local florist anytime soon. In Victorian times, when jungle-collected orchids went up for auction labeled as 'misc.', you could bet your last guinea they would all be straggly, unimpressive Maxillarias. M. schunkeana is set to change all that. Wouldn't you want a tray of these at your next séance?

Paphiopedilum Colorbox x (sukhakulii x Joanne's Wine). Man likes to adapt Nature to his own aesthetic. The proof lies in the seedless watermelon, the chihuahua, and the hundreds of thousands of registered orchid hybrids. A breeding goal especially prevalent among slipper orchid enthusiasts is the creation of ever darker, ever more grotesque (in my humble opinion) Paphiopedilums. These Vinicolor (wine-coloured) slippers are popular subjects at any orchid show, eliciting intakes of breath bordering on the orgasmic from many a septuagenarian. I cannot deny that the black warts and faintly pubic hairs are impressive, although they have so far failed to inspire in me the impulse to buy. Perhaps future breeding efforts will create a Paphiopedilum flower that does not overtly proclaim itself to be the plant's genitals?

Fredclarkeara After Dark 'Feuerbach'. What you see here is the current culmination of black orchid breeding, from a master of the dark arts of the Catasetinae: Fred Clarke of Sunset Valley Orchids, located outside San Diego, California. A rather incongruous setting for the practice of black magic, granted, but what results! Fredclarkeara is an artificial genus, a hybrid encompassing the natural genera Catasetum, Mormodes and Clowesia. Many species in the Catasetinae group have very dark flowers, but none match the jet-black, inky blossoms of Fredclarkeara After Dark, a grex created by the skillful hybridization of Mormodia Painted Desert and Catasetum Donna Wise. Four selected cultivars of the majestic F. After Dark have received First Class Certificates, the highest award bestowed by the American Orchid Society. This is a totally unprecedented achievement, confirming just how coveted truly black orchids still are. Demand far exceeds supply, of course, making black orchids a sensual luxury. Consider selling your soul to own one. The Devil hath power to assume a pleasing shape.


Photography credits: Cattleya aclandiae © Ed Merkle; Dracula roezlii © Eric Hunt; Maxillaria schunkeana © Eric Hunt; Paphiopedilum Colorbox x (sukhakulii x Joanne's Wine) © Matt Pedersen; Fredclarkeara After Dark 'Feuerbach' © Fred Clarke. Please visit these esteemed photographers for more chocolatey goodness.

33 comments:

Lisa said...

This is fascinating. I know next to nothing about plants of any kind, but I loved what I learned about orchids when I watched the movie "Adaptation" and trust that most of what they said about orchids is true. The movie is one of my favorites and I've probably watched it a dozen times.

I need to make the time to peruse your archives and read more of your orchid posts.

Aine said...

Master of the dark arts, indeed! Those orchids are amazing. I'm always fascinated by black flowers of any kind. It just seems so anti-floral, but beautiful.

jason evans said...

Thank you for the show! The "black" orchids are mesmerizing. Almost hypnotic.

aims said...

Those are amazing orchids! And so beautiful to look at!

Of course I saw you flogging this post over at David's...so I came to have a look - and I'm glad I did!

Vesper de Vil said...

gorgeous GORGEOUS flowers!!! thanks for posting.

Erin O'Brien said...

Who cares who got the idea first? Just say "vibe" again baby.

Nice flowers.

Shrinky said...

OMG! You are right, they are incrediblly sexy. I want them at my funeral.. grin.

The Electric Orchid Hunter said...

lisa: actually, most of what they said in the movie Adaptation is totally untrue, on purpose, in order to adapt the screenplay to survive in Hollywood. You should read Susan Orlean's wonderful book for the real story, which is much more interesting and insane.

aine: anti-floral indeed. That last one even seems to be made of anti-matter.

jason evans: the diversity in the orchid family is endlessly fascinating.

aims: and I'm glad you popped over!

vesper de vil: thought these would be right up your alley.

erin o'brien: eh? And, thank you.

shrinky: and what a ravishing corpse you shall make, decorated with these dismal beauties.

Shimmerrings said...

... nice buds... I like Dracula the best, and then the last one, After Dark.

ChristineEldin said...

Gothic orchids--This is really nice. I've never seen a black flower before.
My favorite is the dracula variety.
LOL! My husband's father was on the horticulture team that developed the seedless watermelon.
You'd probably get along famously. He's Egyptian, but worked for the U.N. so he traveled all over the world. Has two graduate degrees from Texas A & M: Genetics and Statistics. DH and his brother were both born in Texas, so he didn't need me for the green card (grin).
:-)

The Electric Orchid Hunter said...

shimmerings: I have a friend who imported some Draculas. At first I thought he was totally insane, but not only did they survive, they thrived and produced huge blossoms that hang down from the baskets like beautiful triangular bats! He is a very skilled gower.

christineeldin: I'm very grateful for seedless watermelons, and so salute your father-in-law. Now, if only they could do something about the gunk inside a butternut...

Lisa said...

How disappointing! I loved the flashbacks of the orchid hunters in China and South America and the short clips of the orchids that looked like the insects that pollinate them -- not true?

The Electric Orchid Hunter said...

lisa: okay, those parts are true; pollinator mimicry is especially prevalent in the terrestrial orchids (Darwin even wrote a book about it). And an orchid collecting expedition is a very exciting and often dangerous undertaking. But the ghost orchid is not a drug, Susan Orlean did not have carnal knowledge of John Laroche, no-one was eaten by an alligator on her trip, and she never did find a ghost orchid in bloom while traipsing around in the swamp. The movie is pretty much divided into 'boring' fact (the first half) and 'clichéd' fiction (the second half. It's a brilliant film, but I guess also a little dangerous.

Anonymous said...

Love black orchids as well. I have a yet unbloomed cross of Cycnoches warscewiczii and Fdcka. After Dark but do not think it will bloom completely black. Can't wait to get my hands on the pollen parent!

The Electric Orchid Hunter said...

Cool, anonymous, I'm jealous. Cyc. warscewiczii, that's a nice shapely green one. What colour do you expect the flowers to turn out?

maximumdose said...

I expect the Cyc. wars x Frdck. after dark cross to be similar to Cycnodes Wine Delight but brown in color, perhaps with darker spots. I haven't been able to find the new hybrid name for this cross. Cycnoches x Catasetum, Clowesia and Mormodes; any idea?

.maximumdose a.k.a. anonymous.

The Electric Orchid Hunter said...

maximumdose: I've had great fun playing around on the International Orchid Register, but to no avail. I've tried all three possible combinations of dihybrid crosses, in both directions, but there doesn't seem to be a registered name for it yet. The names are pretty fun though: the combinations I tried were (Catanoches x Mormodia), (Clowesetum x Cycnodes) and (Catamodes x Clowenoches). That's probably enough made-up Greek and Latin to satisfy even the most devoted taxonomist...

Claire said...

I'm totally falling in love with orchids. The one my boys gave me for Christmas just lost its last bloom. I couldn't believe how long the flowers lasted. Should I fertilize it now or wait?
I love the cattleya because of the contrast of the pink and 'black'. Beautiful!

Devil Mood said...

Oh you really ARE an orchid hunter and there was me thinking it was a metaphor.
Those are really impressive. Some are scary-impressive too.

I had a fuschia one last year. Well, my mother did. Somehow it doesn't exist anymore (it had to be cut) but we're still hope for a rebirth.

*dalyn said...

so beautiful! i remember seeing similar ones at the weekend flower market in taiwan (3 massive city blocks undernieth a major overpass). id spend hours and hours just walking through it admiring the orchids. the range of colours was amazing... all the colours of the rainbow! *d

Pink said...

You spoke too soon....PINK is here!

xx
pinks

The Electric Orchid Hunter said...

claire: you can apply dilute fertilizer once every three weeks or so during the growing season. Don't fertilize if the plant is dormant.

devil mood: the name is a metaphor and somehow... it's not. Perusing these here pages should reveal what I'm about. Orchids are difficult to kill, even more difficult to grow very well.

*dalyn: that must have been impressive. I have always wanted to attend the Tokyo Grand Prix Orchid Show before I die. It's an even bigger event than Chelsea (and probably with fewer septuagenarians).

pink: spoke too soon? What did I say? Apparently, pink is the new black, I'm told. And orange is the new pink.

Inarticulate Fumblings said...

Amazing! Dalyn jogged my memory... I had forgotten about some of the amazing plants that were available in Taiwan that I would NEVER have found in Canada.

So here's my question. Where/How/Can you order these orchids anywhere? I'm considering selling my soul.

maximumdose said...

Inarticulate Fumblings,
I've actually just purchased Fdcka. After Dark on ebay. I purchase most of my plants from orchid shows or mail order. Black orchids are available you'll just have to look. I like to browse through local nurseries on orchidmall.com.

The Electric Orchid Hunter said...

inarticulate fumblings: www.orchidmall.com is a pretty good online resource. I have a link in my sidebar. But I'd go for a Paph, or a Cattleya or something, if I were you. I know for a fact you are not going to like what the plants themselves of the Catasetinae actually look like: they make LOTS of little aerial roots.

maximumdose: how much is it going for on eBay? Orchid shows and nurseries are the best, because you can personally select the plants you want. Mail order catalogue purchases are okay, but I've gotten some disappointing scrawny runts that way, too.

maximumdose said...

I purchased Fdcka. After Dark for $50 on ebay. Pricey even though I was the only bidder. I tend to splurge for orchids I really want since I have a small windowsill collection. I also have to look for local nurseries due to import regulations here in Hawaii.

Rositta said...

Okay, I'm hooked...I've had to add you to my bloglines. I adore Orchids even though I only own three. Two pretty run of the mill ones but one special one a Dancing Lady and I was so proud of myself that I could get her to bloom again...ciao

Angela said...

Well, that last one is certainly gorgeous! You know, my family owns a flower shop in Georgia in which I spent many years working holidays and proms. We spray painted orchids black and often overlayed the black with a spray called opalescense. They were always my favorites to do.

arcadia said...

absoluut fassinerend. dis amazing hoe jy 'n mens boei met hierdie stukke -

SleekPelt said...

Another great post, Teoh. The grotesque one looks like something out of Pink Floyd's The Wall.

Anonymous said...

The Gastrodia article is in the April issue of Pollinia, with attribution. The issue is online at www.pollinia.org. It will go to the printer by Friday. Check it for any errors which may have crept in, and for the references.

If you would like printed copies, I'll send them. Just ask me through the website address.

And could I reprint the current Post on "Dark Desires" in our July issue?

The Electric Orchid Hunter said...

That looks great! I couldn't find any errors. And you may reprint the black orchid post in the upcoming issue. The photo credits are listed below the post.

Blondie said...

This is the best line ever:

"Perhaps future breeding efforts will create a Paphiopedilum flower that does not overtly proclaim itself to be the plant's genitals?"

Thank you thank you thank you. Too funny.