Friday, April 21, 2017

Finding a Begonia during the dry season

Dryest month during a historical drought (no rain for 4 months) and we decided to search for a Begonia - a notoriously humidity-loving plant at a little known corner of The Philippines.....a fool-hardy endeavour no doubt but we are are no beach-lovers and there were little else to do here...

We were on the road for almost a day ......

slept comfortably, then set up on a boat the next morning.

Unfortunately, the water level was too low and we had to push the boat across the pebbly bottom .....

past some curious locals .....

and eventually decided to land near a dry tributary.

The stream was totally dry and there were steep banks on both our lefts and rights - on wetter days, we would be walking with our heads under the water.

I was not claustrophobic, just hoping it wasn't raining somewhere upstream which would trigger a flash flood ......

And then, suddenly we saw it, growing flat against the steep banks .....

There are some variations in the venation. This one  ....

and this one, found deeper up along the dry stream ....

and something in between .....

The plant is from Section Diploclinium and is clearly related to the Begonia cleopatrae described in 2010 and yet its quite different in rosette growth form (rather than a creeper). The flowers and the seed capsules also exclude it from B. suborbiculata but there are quite a few similar looking plants here and I do not have sufficient literature to fall back on. 

....having satisfied our curiosities, we now have to plough back and get some decent food and a good bed ....

Friday, April 14, 2017

A slave boy, a stingless bee and how they changed a spice trade

One evening in 1841, at the French controlled Réunion Island in the Indian Ocean, Férreol Bellier-Beaumont was strolling around his plantation with his young slave boy when he noticed something unusual.

It was 2 Vanilla pods dangling from a pole.....

Having grown Vanilla planifolia for 20 years without producing a single pod, this event was met with a sense of excitement for Monsieur Beaumont. However, he  paid scant notice of his slave boy, known simply as Edmond (for he has no family name) claiming credit for the deed.

A few days later, Monsieur Beaumont saw another flower …. and he was all attentive as the dark boy demonstrated how he managed to manually pollinate it by pulling down the lip of a flower and with other hand coercing the union of the stigma and anthers.

Much to his surprise, Monsieur Beaumont had another pod after this event.

Drawing of Vanilla planifolia painted by F.E. Köhler (1883-1914)

This realisation shook the establishment. Some aristocrats promptly removed all types of flowers, the gaudy sex organs, from their hats - but Monsieur Beaumont and his peers responded by feverishly impregnating them. Edmond's useful little botany lesson just jump-started the Vanilla industry in the sleepy ex-French colony.

And soon the Mexicans, who for decades held a fragile monopoly of these pods growing in their backyard, thanks to the industry of a small stingless bee from genus Melipona, suddenly found their leading exporter status overtaken by the faraway growers at the Indian Ocean. They now produced less than one tenth the amount of either Madagascar and Indonesia, the 2 largest exporters. In recent years, this pod alone accounts for around 10% of Madagascar's GDP.

This is a fine example of "Creative destruction" long before this term was even coined.

And what became of Edmond, the little known slave boy, who knew nothing of Intellectual Property ?

Well, he died childless and poor.

Vanila pompoana is commercially used to flavour Cuban cigars.

Vanilla consists of 100 plus species of vining orchids distributed in tropical New world and Old but only three has been capitalised for spice. More than 90% of the pods traded belonged to that of Vanilla planifolia, with Vanilla pompoana and Vanilla tahitensis making up the rest. None of the Asian species are of commercial value. Today, Vanilla is treasured in everything from desserts, ice-creams, cocktails, Pepsi Cola and even Coke. It also imparts a characteristic base note to many famous perfumes - Chanel N0 5, Opium, Shalimar, Dune, Tresor and so on.
A few members of this genus in Africa and Asia are leafless, relying on the green stems for photosynthesis. Vanilla aphylla is one of them. It has no commercial value in the spice trade but is sometimes grown as a curio.

Vanilla siamensis vines dangle from forest trees in NW Thailand.

(1)Travels in search of the luscious substance, Tim Ecott.
(2)1762, On Experiences, Bezaar Zimmermann

Friday, April 7, 2017

Waxy home and a homeless doll

Location: within the compound of a temple at a one horse town in northern Thailand.

We were first attracted by a population of stingless Trigona bees (family Apidae) and their characteristics tubular hives made of resin and sand. This type of bees can provide nutritious honey and best of all, they do not have stings or very reduced ones. So naturally, there was a trend by some governments to encourage rural communities to keep them as an additional source of income. They can still bite though, but that's much less of a torment.

.....beside one of the hives, there was a kuman thong doll. Closer inspection showed that its feet were cut off.

Kuman thong, which literary means golden child,  is a popular Thai practice of keeping a child spirit within an effigy in the hope that the spirit will help the keeper prosper, usually in business. In the older days, instead of plastic figurines, dead human foetuses, dry-roasted, were used.  Nowadays, the effigy is likely a plastic depiction of a cute kid in Ayutthaya period costumes.  

Like all babies, this adopted child must be entertained and fed with sweets and soda or he may throw tandrums - which will spell trouble for the keeper. If the keeper decides to disown the child for reasons best known to himself, he must place it in a temple (like this one) and request the priest to perform a ritual to free himself from the shackle. As a further safeguard to prevent the child from following him back home, the feet may be cut off.

So there you have it ... a homeless stranded child spirit beside the stingless bee's humble abode. It may sound hairy but down here its a common folk tradition.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

The Stalk-eyed fly

I stared in wide eyed amazement when I encountered this for the first time at an almost dried riverbed .......perhaps they were rather common but they were slightly smaller than a housefly and unless they landed somewhere right in front of you, you would never have guessed they have such funny appendages....
The Stalk-eyed fly (family Diopsidae) from Philippines.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

In the glory of Pink shower

Hot dry season at Thai-Burmese border.

The dreary long drive was interrupted by a glorius sight ....

Cassia bakeriana or the pink shower tree is a native of the seasonally dry areas of Thailand and Burma. It is from the Legume family and is closely related to Golden shower tree (C. fistula) that has been introduced by Singapore authorities for city scaping. During the dry season, the small tree drop all the leaves and cover themselves in pink blossoms in a concerted fashion....the flowering fools ! 

If they can do as well in Singapore, there will be no need to go to Japan for cherry blossom seasons.

Friday, March 31, 2017

Mysterious ghost orchid

The Dawna Range was in dry season in March but in between the parched landscapes there were pockets of oases fed by mountain streams. Stepping into this dark worlds, one of the first thing we saw was the ghost orchid....Epipogium roseum

This is a strange leafless orchid that has flower spikes rising straight out from a longish tuber. They are fungi associated with the tubers that help to digest the leaf litter and provide food for the plant. 

Unlike its cousin, Epipogium aphylla, which has larger and more rosy flowers to attract insects, this species is mostly self-pollinating, as the tiny rosetellum is unable to separate the pollens falling into its own stigma. Another abnomality: most small terrestrial orchids would have an upright fruit capsules in order to disperse the seeds as far as possible but this species has a drooping one which means the seeds will drop next to the parent. Nevertheless, its methods have proven to be quite successful as it is widespread in the old tropics, from West Africa, down to Indian Peninsula, Indo-China, Thailand, Philippines, New Guinea and Australia. One can understand why they do not need the picky insects.

Many pictures in the internet showed the flowers past their prime, which is a bit unfair. The fully opened flower is quite elegant, though rather bloodless. It actually reminds me of another pale leafless plant with a common name of Ghost plant or Indian pipe (Monotropa uniflora) below....which I found in New Brunswick many years ago. Unlike the orchid though, this one is parasitic on a fungus, which means the fungus did not benefit from the association.

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