Friday, December 12, 2008

Restrepia elegans

You know you have an obsession when you need to have something around you all of the time. My home is a bit of a botanical ark. The garden beds are filled with collections of various genera of plants the most prominent of which is the genus Pelargonium. The greenhouses and shadehouses protect my collection of Cymbidiums. Even my home office, kitchen and dining room have the odd potted plant on the window sills.

Most of the plants that make it to the house are reminders of family or friends. These permanent house guests occasionally have to share space with a flowering Cymbidium that fleetingly comes for a visit and like all good house guests leaves after a few days. There are not all that many permanent members of the indoor flora but each has a special meaning.

In the corner of the dining room there is one of those old-time brass hanging baskets strung up by long brass chains. The 'basket' contains a 15cm black plastic pot with Zebrina pendula, the beautiful wine red, silver and green Wandering Jew as it was known then I was growing up. This reminds me of my mother. She had jars filled with cuttings of Zebrina that lined a narrow shelf that ran the length of the double ceramic sink that itself ran the length of the windows.

Above my sink is a pot of Oxalis triangularis, the two-toned purple leaved form. My favourite Aunt, Aunt Doris, grew a plant of this in an antique ceramic pot on a small table covered in a doily at the top of the stairs to the upstairs bedrooms. Even in the darkest days of winter it provided a stark contrast to the bleak trees and snow on the other side of the glass. Here was this apparently delicate little plant with bright perky leaves of the most intense colour topped with the most delicate pink flowers on long stalks. I always wondered how it survived. Now that mine has been alive in the same place for at least the past 19 years with only being repotted twice in that time I am starting to understand.

Oxalis triangularis

On my home office desk there is a dwarf Japanese cultivar of Raphis excelsa, the Lady Palm. It is growing in a specially designed and handcrafted pot made by a friend. Some reminders remain private.

My work office desk and windows were a bit bare. The walls have a couple of drawings of some of my special plants. I really wanted something living. The office air is very dry and most plants last a couple of days before showing stress. My approach was a bit lateral. When I was a young man terrariums were all the rage. There were hundreds of designs including plain old jars to aquariums to specially designed enormous glass vessels with narrow necks and large bulbous bases. They even sold special terrarium tools to plant these long-necked bottles. Of course I had a set.

One day we were cleaning up the marine lab making space for one of the new students. We opened one of the locked cabinets and inside was the most amazing arrays of aquariums, all with matching glass lids. I am a sucker for a well built anything! These aquariums were obviously lovingly made. One particular size took my fancy, they were about 30cm long, 20cm high and about 15cm deep. Four end-to-end would fit comfortably on each of my office window sills. I have three windows in my office! The temperatures in my office do not fall below 15C at night and do not go above 25C during the day, every day of the year! Permanent tropics.

The aquariums on the south-facing window I filled with various species of Jewel Orchids; Anoectochilus, Ludisia, Goodyera, Macodes. They look great all snuggled up in live sphagnum moss with their lids on. Once a year I have to push the glass across to leave a small gap for the flower spikes to poke through. After they flower the spikes are cut off and the lids put back into place. Life is peaceful again.

On the windowsills that face east I have a collection of little Masdevallias, Restrepia and a few of the other miniature South American Pleurithallids. In the past few weeks one particular little sweetie has been blooming its head off. This is the extremely delicate and very refined little orchid, Restrepia elegans. The whole plant is all of maybe 6-7 cm tall. The flower is huge for the size of the plant being almost 2 cm long along the axis of the fused lateral sepals. The dorsal sepal and petals are just about as long but quickly taper into long narrow threads each topped with a little knob that emits pheromones to attract the pollinator. It literally smells like female wasps at least to a male wasp. The males must be pretty blind (aren't most males when they are pursuing a sexual reward?).

This plant provided me with another lesson from my photography teacher. How to take a picture of such a tiny plant and flower and to get it looking good. I think the second shot is much better. It is hard to get good depth of field when you are working with such tiny subjects. These little fellas will go on flowering for months so there will be plenty of opportunity to keep trying to get a good shot. In the meantime, when the boredom of some tasks at work start to get to me or some person is being, well, you know, difficult, I can always look to the windowsill and see something of beauty that asks nothing of me but provides me with so much.

Restrepia elegans

Restrepia elegans

1 comment:

archibear said...

Dear Chuckie,

Such a beautifully told story. I work in the built environment, and for me, places and buildings will remind me of people. Just amazing to read that the plant kingdom has for you, the same trigger. Thank-you again for an amazing and engrossing tale.

Cheers, Archi