Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Ponthieva racemosa, the shadow witch, an orchid native of Puerto Rico

Ponthieva racemosa

Inflorescence, top view

A fly with pollinia stuck to its mouth parts


Pontieva racemosa goes by the common name “the shadow witch”, I don’t know the origin of the name but I am sure it is due to its preference for growing in shaded locations.  It has a patchy distribution in the Rio Abajo forest where it can be locally abundant.  When this plant is not in bloom there is little to betray that it is an orchid.   You can sometimes see it in roadside banks among the weeds as a low growing rosette of leaves growing in the shadow under the trees.  Locally it blooms in the winter and all the plants in a location bloom together.  The flowers are green and small.  It is not in cultivation and I have never seen it exhibited in any of our local orchid shows.

A group of Ponthieva racemosa

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

La cria de alevines muy diminutos usando un mini-ecosistema

Una cria extremadamente joven de Melanotaenia boesemanni flotando justo bajo la superficie del agua.  Pececillos en esta etapa son muy vulnerables a la depredacion y los cambios ambientales.  Esta foto si que requirio paciencia y suerte para conseguirla.



Una cria de M. boesemanni buscando alimento algunos milimetros bajo la superficie

Dos crias de M. boesemanni, la cria en la esquina superior izquierda se prepara para consumir una particula de alimento
Esta cria de M. boesemanni muestra barriga redonda tipica de las crias mas jovenes que estan bien alimentadas
Cria de Fundulopanchax gardneri 'Blue' preparandose para depredar un organismo del zooplancton conocido como Cyclops.  Otra foto que requirio la paciencia de Job.
Cria de Platy, Xiphophorus sp. en Ceratophyllum demersum, note que el agua esta clara
Matas flotantes de Ceratophyllum demersum
Plantas de Azolla y Salvinia flotando sobre la superficie del agua, pueden ser tan fuertes en la competencia por la luz y los nutrientes como lo es la Pistia (vea texto)
Java Moss, esta foto demuestra como forra todo el fondo de un tanque, note que el agua es muy clara
Raices de Hygrophyla difformis, se pueden usar para desovar peces cuyos huevos son sensibles a la luz ya que las hojas de la planta los protegen
Un tanque eutroficado con algas verde azules y rojas
Algas verde azules cubriendo otras plantas sumergidas.

Grupo de M. boesemanni buscando alimento en la superficie
La reproducción de los peces tropicales es una de las experiencias más gratificantes que la afición acuarística puede ofrecer. Sin embargo también puede ser la fuente de enormes frustraciones y decepciones cuando los esfuerzos por reproducir los peces fracasan. Hay una gran cantidad de razones por la cual algunos peces no pueden ser reproducidos en cautiverio. Algunos peces solo se reproducen en aguas tan libres de minerales que son el equivalente de agua destilada levemente contaminada. Otros necesitan niveles de pH específicos o sus huevos no se desarrollan. Aun otros tienen huevos tan sensibles a la luz que mueren si son iluminados. Hay hasta los que combinan todos los requisitos anteriores en una desesperante lista de especificaciones que tienen que cumplirse para que sus huevos eclosionen y crías sobrevivan.


Pero hay otros peces que no son tan estrictos en sus exigencias ambientales para la reproducción pero aun así no se les puede criar fácilmente. Estos son los peces cuyas larvas recién nacidas son tan diminutas que no pueden comer ninguna de las comidas preparadas disponibles al acuarista y tampoco pueden consumir las larvas de los camarones Artemia salina. En esta lista están algunas especies de gouramis, killies y tetras.

En estos casos se recomienda que se alimenten los alevines con protozoos microscópicos que en los libros son denominados “infusoria”. Varios libros dan diversas recetas para producir los protozoos, estas recetas van desde tener un caracol en una pecera y alimentarlo con lechuga para que sus heces fecales alimenten a su vez a la “infusoria” hasta los cultivos a base de la descomposición de las hojas de plantas. Mi experiencia usando algunos de estos métodos no ha sido buena. Hay que tener un buen sentido de la cantidad de alimento que se debe colocar en la pecera para mantener un balance entre la densidad de alimento necesaria para que los alevines se alimenten con éxito y la cantidad que puede alterar adversamente los parámetros ambientales del aviario y matar los pececillos.

Pero he logrado alevines muy diminutos usando un mini ecosistema que provee un ambiente favorable y estable tanto para los protozoos como para los alevines. Pero no dejen que la expresión mini ecosistema los engañe, solo uno de ellos ha sido en peceras de menos de treinta galones y los más exitosos son en estaques de cuarenta a cincuenta galones. Pero comencemos detallando los elementos que se usan en la creación de estos pequeños ecosistemas.

Lo primero que se necesita es una fuente de luz brillante, he usando tanto la luz natural como artificial con éxito. La luz es fundamental en la creación de un ambiente favorable para los alevines ya que deseamos que nuestro sistema tenga una abundancia de vida vegetal. El segundo elemento es las plantas de varios tipos. Tan importante es la vida vegetal que en el caso de las crías mas diminutas lo deseable es que el agua tenga un color verde. El color verde y la abundancia de vegetación se pueden lograr con una combinación de plantas acuáticas y fitoplancton (algas microscópicas que flotan libremente en el agua). He utilizado una gran variedad de plantas acuáticas, mi preferida es el “Java moss” ya que su forma de crecimiento ofrece un abundante hábitat para toda clase de microorganismos. El “Java moss” también forma una maraña de crecimientos que ofrecen refugio a los huevos recién puestos y a los pececillos larvales recién nacidos.

Nuestro principal enemigo cuando estamos preparando uno de estos estanques es la desagradable alga verde-azul que en adición a ser toxica también tiende a matar las plantas de nuestro sistema cubriéndolas y privándolas de la luz solar y los nutrientes. Las algas verde-azules pueden ser difíciles de controlar en condiciones de abundancia de luz y nutrientes, por eso es importante cuidar el flujo de nutrientes a nuestro sistema. Esto es un detalle clave ya que debemos mantener nuestros sistemas en un punto donde hay suficientes nutrientes para mantener una abundante vida microscópica pero no tantos como para que el alga verde azul domine el lugar o, aun peor, que ocurra la temida descomposición anaeróbica. La descomposición anaeróbica ocurre cuando hay tantos nutrientes en el sistema que los microorganismos usan todo el oxigeno disponible para consumirlos, al faltar el oxigeno todos los animales de la pecera mueren asfixiados. Los nutrientes se introducen en la pecera en la forma de comida de peces y de pequeñas cantidades de fertilizantes que se añaden al principio del proceso para estimular el crecimiento vegetal.

Para establecer uno de estos sistemas biológicos utilizo tanto peceras como envases plásticos. Los envases plásticos que uso son los que se pueden conseguir en las tiendas por departamento en tamaños de 30 galones. No utilizo los de color transparente ya que estos son particularmente vulnerables a la luz ultravioleta y se degradan con rapidez, tornándose tan quebradizos que se rompen con alarmante facilidad. Aun los de colores sólidos los uso debajo de una capa de tela de saran, la cual los protege del azote de la luz solar directa.

Una vez la pecera o el envase está lleno de agua entonces coloco las plantas. He utilizado con éxito las siguientes plantas Cerathophyllum demersum, “Java Moss”, Hygrophyla difformis, Echinodorus tenellus y una planta semiacuatica conocida como “temple plant”. Utilizo las plantas dependiendo de las especies de peces que interese reproducir. Hygrophyla difformis con sus grandes hojas sumergidas sirve para aquellos peces que hacen nidos subacuáticos y que necesitan una hoja para anclarlos. El “Java moss” es perfecto para los peces que lanzan sus huevos por todos lados durante el desove. La Cerathopyllum forma marañas impenetrables para los peces adultos justo debajo de la superficie por lo cual es útil para aquellos casos en que los alevines necesitan un lugar donde refugiarse de los adultos.

Noten que no añado tierra para sembrar plantas en el fondo, piedras o plantas en tiestos, hago esto para poder, si es necesario, remover fácilmente todas las plantas de la pecera sin perturbar el fondo. Esto hay que hacerlo en ocasiones para poder capturar los adultos reproductores. Desafortunadamente la tierra y las piedras tienen la capacidad de alterar el pH y cambiar los parámetros de concentración de minerales en el agua de formas impredecibles.

Me imagino que los que tienen peceras marinas ya habrán reconocido que los pasos son similares al establecimiento de un sistema microbiano marino en una pecera. La diferencia entre los sistemas que discutimos aquí y los sistemas marinos es que en nuestros sistemas el énfasis es en la producción de biomasa microscópica de los organismos conocidos como protozoos, mientras que en los marinos la meta es una población microbiana que mantenga los parámetros del agua en un cierto grado de estabilidad ante el influjo de nutrientes a la pecera. El una pecera marina el agua verde no es esperada ni bienvenida. En nuestros sistemas el agua verde es al contrario un resultado deseable y ventajoso para nuestras metas.

Quiero aclarar que no es nuestra meta final tener un tanque produciendo una alta población de microorganismos indefinidamente. Todo lo contrario, queremos tener en el sistema una buena población de microorganismos cuando los alevines mas lo necesiten, una vez que los alevines ya no necesiten infusoria podemos dejar que el agua aclare poco a poco por medio de la reducción natural de nutrientes en agua gracias a que las plantas los han extraído o reduciendo la intensidad de la luz incidente en el sistema a un nivel que no sostenga el crecimiento del fitoplancton. También podemos reducir la biomasa microbiana reduciendo el nivel de alimento que introducimos en el sistema. Este último punto es crucial y los discutiremos a continuación.

En estos sistemas diseñados para producir un ambiente estable para los alevines, usted alimenta el ecosistema y el ecosistema alimenta los alevines. La forma más básica de alimentar un sistema de fitoplancton acuático es introduciendo nutrientes químicos, un ejemplo de estos los son los fertilizantes que se utilizan para las plantas caseras. En una concentración diluida pueden estimular el crecimiento de las algas microscópicas. Generalmente solo uso estos químicos si quiero resultados rápidos aun cuando cuando se usa esta forma siempre se corre el riesgo de estimular el crecimiento de la aborrecible alga verde azul.

Para comenzar a establecer el sistema necesitamos un tanque lo bastante grande para tener un sistema que no sea vulnerable a cambios súbitos en las condiciones del agua. Por esta razón no uso tanques de menos de treinta galones. Una vez el tanque está lleno lo primero que coloco en su interior son las plantas. Dos o tres días después libero en el tanque los peces que lo habitaran durante el periodo de establecimiento y estabilización de la flora microbiana del tanque. Me gusta usar peces los vivíparos del genero Poecilia ya que son resistentes a las condiciones de agua adversas y sus colores llamativos los hacen fáciles de localizar cuando hay que capturarlos para sacarlos del tanque. Solo uso machos en el establecimiento del sistema ya que no quiero que ocurra la reproducción en el tanque. ¿Por qué no quiero que los vivíparos se reproduzcan en el tanque? Porque hasta el guppy mas diminuto es un temible depredador de los alevines que deseamos reproducir en este sistema. Además si tenemos que revolcar el sistema para capturar los peces corremos el riesgo de provocar alterar el balance de nutrientes/microorganismos que estamos buscando.

Lograr un sistema estable y productivo puede tomar tan poco como un par de semanas si lo que se interesa es tener un embase lleno de agua verde que proporcione alimento a los alevines solo por unos pocos días. Sin embargo sistemas más estables y productivos pueden tardar meses en tener un balance de plantas que eviten que los nutrientes provoquen una descomposición anaeróbica. En mi experiencia me gusta que el estanque tenga como tres meses de establecido antes de intentar desovar peces en él. La biomasa de plantas es de particular importancia ya que ellas absorben tanto los químicos producidos por la descomposición de los alimentos no consumidos por los peces como los desechos de los mismos. Una buena población de planas absorbe los desechos tan rápido como estos son producidos y asi evita que contaminen el agua.

Hay algunas plantas que son tan buenas removiendo los nutrientes del agua que pueden evitar que el agua se torne verde. Una de estas lo es la Pistia stratiotes. Sus enormes raíces cobijan una tremenda fauna microbiana y las he usado con éxito para reproducir gouramis pero son tan eficientes competidoras que desplazan a todas las otras plantas y las matan privándolas de luz solar y nutrientes. Esto es un detalle importante, deseamos estructura en nuestro tanque, esto significa que queremos tener varios tipos de plantas que ofrezcan diversos hábitat tanto cerca de la superficie como en el fondo. Según el sistema acumula materia orgánica esto le permite sostener una población mayor de microorganismos. Hay que notar que usted no limpia este sistema como si fuera una pecera, lo que hace es dejar que los detritos se acumulen y formen un fondo blando en que cual las plantas introducirán sus raíces. Este fondo blando está lleno de microorganismos que contribuyen a la estabilidad del sistema.

Una vez usted se encuentra satisfecho con su tanque de cría lleno de plantas y microorganismos llego la hora de capturar a los peces que se introdujeron inicialmente y substituirlos por los que queremos reproducir. Pero antes de introducir a los peces que serán reproducidos, dejo pasar como una semana sin tener peces en el estanque y sigo alimentándolo como si hubiera peces. Hago esto para permitir que la población de zooplancton (diminutos crustáceos casi microscópicos) tenga la oportunidad de crecer en ausencia de los peces. Pero hay que tener el ojo puesto en el tanque ya que los mosquitos pueden invadirlo más rápido de los que se puede decir Dengue.

Los peces adultos se introducen en el estanque y dependiendo de la especie se retiran en uno o dos días. En algunos casos especiales, en los cuales los adultos no consumen ni los huevos n i las crías, se puede dejar los adultos indefinidamente en el tanque. En el caso de la especie que mas recientemente he reproducido usando este método, Melanotaenia boesemanni, los adultos no atacan a las crías si se les alimenta con una dieta adecuada y variada. Las fotos del artículo son en su mayoría de el ultimo desove de los boesemanni.

Este sistema de alimentar crías muy pequeñas no sirve para criar grandes números de pececillos, así que hay que contentarse con criar una o dos docenas si tenemos suerte, aunque no descarto que se pudieran criar más si se recurre suplementar la alimentación con Artemia salina o a los microgusanos una vez los alevines tengan el tamaño suficiente para poder consumirlos. El único problema que he tenido con estos sistemas es la ocasional larva de libélula que los invade y que depreda en los alevines.

Cattleya mossiae 'Willowbrook' a species? a hybrid? does it matter?

This flower has large wide petals which give it a nice full shape however it is a bit asimetrical.  The color is slightly deeper than normal.

A poor blooming produced when the plant was weakened by root loss.


Cattleya mossiae ‘Willowbrook’ FCC/AOS is widely considered to be a hybrid of Cattleya mossiae and Cattleya luedemanniana called Cattleya Gravesiae.   Whether it is a species or a hybrid this has little weight regarding my enjoyment of this plant as in my view this information is mainly of concern to hybridizers and purist species collectors.
This beautiful orchid has a lot to recommend it, it has a delightful fragrance, the flowers can be large and its color is lovely.  On the other hand in my experience, it is a veritable scale magnet, if it doesn’t get an open and airy media it will produce only a few short roots, also if its root system is damaged it sulks, sometimes for years.  Finally you will have to devote some effort to work out which is for your location the right combination of light/watering/fertilizer/media for this plant or your chances of getting the huge FCC quality flowers that this plant can produce will be slim.  If you have never seen a strong plant blooming, the flowers produced by weak plants can make you wonder how this plant ever got a FCC.
As you can see in the photo this plant can produce wide flat petals that can put to shame even the best hybrids.  But as the flower ages it tends to flex its petals forward and its sepals backwards so this state of wonderful roundness is unfortunately an ephemeral stage that ocurrs as the flower opens and the petals unfold.  If the flowers are protected from the insects and birds they can last for weeks even when grown outside in the tropics where exposure to rain and wind can damage other Cattleyas with less sturdy flowers.
My plant has survived, insects, snails, fungal infections and root loss but all these took their toll and I almost lost it.  My plant dwindled to just a few small pseudobulbs.  But I have moved it to a drier location where fungal infections are much less prevalent.  Hopefully it will regain its strength and someday I will be able to post a new photo of his flowers in all its glory.
This is how I culture this plant:
Light:  Strong, full sunlight from sunrise to approximately 10 am then the dappled shade of trees.  But I am experimenting with growing it under shade cloth.
Watering:  Almost every day when it is growing but twice a week when it is not growing.
Fertilizing:  Every week when the plant is in full growth, one when it is not growing.
Media:  Used to grow it on medium bark, but this has proven troublesome as when it decays it tends to become too water retentive, even when the plant is grown in a wire basket.  I plan to repot it to media that is less water retentive such as a combination of bark, charcoal and stone.
Temperature:  Seems unaffected in any way that I can see to highs in the nineties in the summer  and lows in the fifties in the winter.  

Monday, December 27, 2010

Erythrodes hirtella, a Puerto Rican terrestrial orchid that is inconspicuous to a fault

Erythrodes hirtella, inflorescence

Plant body, note the shiny leaves with characteristic venation

Another view of the inflorescence

The orchid Erythrodes hirtella is one of those orchids that is so small, so unorchid-like and so inconspicuous that you could live for years next to a population of these plants and never realize that there were orchids nearby.   This happened to me with this species.  In fact I am sure I would have never noticed it if it had not forced itself on my attention.  Living in the middle of a forest, where it can rain every day for months on end, means that if you have any kind of plant in a pot you have to wage a constant war against invading ferns, melastomaceae, figs and all kind of invasive weeds that feel that the delicate, pampered and well fed denizen of the pot can be displaced by a more aggressive grower.  So I have to constantly weed the pots of face the loss of my plants.  One day meanwhile engaged in the unending weeding I was struck by the peculiar pattern of veining in the leaves of a small weed that had grown in the pot of one of my lilies.  The veining pattern, typically monocotyledonean was suspiciously orchid like.  I decided to spare the intruder and to keep it under observation.  Although initially excited by the mysterious intruder, a search of the literature quickly made clear that the orchid would probably belong to a species that produced small unshowy flowers.
When the plant did bloom the flowers were, as predicted small and unremarkable.  However the blooming did afford me the opportunity to document this species for my photo collection of Puerto Rican orchids.  Once I had become familiar with this plant I spotted others growing in the forest floor in scattered locations near my home.  This species is not in cultivation except perhaps accidentally.  It is the living embodiment of the old dictum “an orchid only of interest to botanists”.  I observed the plant for some time after it bloomed and set seed.  After the seed was dispersed the plant started to deteriorate and it died almost completely.  Some tiny pieces of stem remained alive and started to grow back, but by then my interest in this species had run its course.  The small stem pieces were relocated into a suitable habitat into the forest to live or die in their own terms as nature goes through its yearly cycle.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

An Erythrodes sp. I am not sure which species this orchid is


This Erythrodes sp. was growing next to what I believe to be plants of Erythrodes plantaginea, but the flowers and the inflorescences are different.  You can compare both plants looking at this post:  http://ricardogupi.blogspot.com/2010/12/erythrodes-plantaginea-terrestrial.html
It is clearly not Erythrodes hirtella.  Perhaps I am not familir with the variation in flower form and inflorescesce in these species, but for all that is worth here is the photo for comparison.  Comments are welcome.

Erythrodes plantaginea, a terrestrial orchid common at high elevation forests in PR

Erythrodes plantaginea

Several Erythrodes plants blooming in El Yunque peak

This  terrestrial orchid is common in the Sierra de Luquillo forests in the parts at middle and high elevations that I have been able to visit.  It is easy to find in the roadsides and with little effort you can find many plants with inflorescences.  It doesn’t have any horticultural importance and as far as I know it is not in cultivation.  This is plant is native of Puerto Rico and can be found on other islands of the West Indies.  Because of its small white flowers that seem unremarkable at first sight this plants has not been of interest to orchidists, even among those that have visited their habitat, few are even aware they are orchids.   These plants were in bloom in February.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Amazona vittata, laparoscopic examination of their internal organs to check their state of health

This is a normal ovary of a mature female, the white irregular patch to the left marks the spot where an egg was released

A healthy testicle

A spent fibrous ovary of an old Amazona ventralis, the owner of this ovary is reproductively senecent

A liver with yellow spots of uncertain etiology 

Lymari (USFWS), Jafet Velez (USFWS), Brian Ramos (DRNA)

Dr. Antonio Rivera the veterinarian that conducted the laparoscopic examinations
A bird ready for the procedure, note the laparoscopic probe  which is the wand like apparatus on the doctor;s hand


The view of the body cavity of the parrot on real time on the computer screen

The first sign that bird is coming out of anesthezia is when they open their eyes, as you can see this bird is not amused

A hispaniolan parrot just removed from the anesthezia apparatus
During the course of the year we test our birds for various diseases, give them physical examinations and do a variety of blood tests on the flock.  Also we evaluate carefully each breeding pair performance during the breeding season.  Usually all these things put together give us a pretty good idea of what to expect from our birds and the state of their health.  But in some cases what exactly is the reason for a bird not breeding is not clear from blood examinations and physical tests.  Then we use a laparoscopic apparatus to see into the bird.
The laparoscopic apparatus is an electronic device that allows us to see inside the bird by using a flexible tube that acts as a camera to capture images of the internal organs.  Since the tube is fairly thin the incision needed is small, more like a hole than a cut.  The flexible tube has fiber optics that bring light inside the animal and allows us to see the internal organs live in a computer screen.  At times we have added a tiny probe that can clip diminutive bits of tissues of interest.  This procedure can be done with very little loss of blood by the animal and after it is finished the birds can get back to their cages and normal routine after a few hours of observation.
The birds are anesthetized using isoflourane.  The flow of the anesthetic is carefully metered to insure that the bird has the proper level of anesthesia.  Unfortunately the level of anesthesia needed to put the birds to sleep is not too far from the level that can kill them.  That means that during the whole operation there is one person paying very close attention to the bird vital signs.  In case a bird stops breathing we have ways to rescue it.  Thankfully, because the staff has a fair amount of experience on treating birds we have never lost one to anesthesia.  We anesthetize the birds because the parrots in our flock object in the strongest terms possible to being handled and will happily put one or a dozen vicious bites in the hand that feeds them.  Our parrots are familiar with medical tests and abhor them wholeheartedly.
Once the bird is safely anesthetized an area on its left side is cleaned and a cut of about one centimeter is made on the skin and muscles.  Through this cut a hole is made into the body cavity and the laparoscopic apparatus is threaded into the body.  Usually the lungs, heart, liver, kidney and gonads are checked for appearance and everything is described, if any abnormality is noted a photo is taken.  Relevant aspects of the bird life history are discussed before each individual laparoscopic examination.   The doctor checks the organs and makes his evaluation and recommendations.  The probe is extracted and the cut sutured.
After the operation the birds are carefully monitored to see that they recuperate successfully from anesthesia.  We all can remember what happened to Michael Jackson because his doctor put him under deep anesthesia and then left him all alone to do some errands.  The birds recuperate fairly quickly from the anesthesia and after they open their eyes and stand on their feet we can confidently say that they won’t unexpectedly croak on us.

I want to thank the USFWS for lending us the laparoscopy machine and for the help of their skilled personnel to give support to Dr, Rivera during the procedure.  I want to thank Jafet Velez (USFWS), Lymari (USFWS), Brian Ramos DRNA) and Dr. Antonio Rivera.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Bulbophyllum Wibur Chang, the beauty and the zombie rat stench that won't leave

Bulbophyllum echinolabium, one of the parents of Wilbur Chang,
 due to the lenght of the inflorescence 
the actual plant body is out of the picture


 Bulbophyllum Wilbur Chang echinolabium x Bulb. carunculatum

You can see the texture of the lip which is slightly spiny
 and resembles raw or rotten meat 

The carrion fly that was trapped by this flower didn't have the strengh to overcome the hinged mechanism of the lip, it died trapped between the lip and the column

Like a stunningly beautiful but powerfully flatulent beauty queen Bulbophyllum echinolabium draws us close with its beauty only to gag us with its stench when we approach.   It used to be that to be an orchidist meant growing Cattleya, but in modern times there has been a shift of focus among the most dedicated orchidists toward other genera of orchids that previous growers dismissed as “of interest only to botanists”.   As a result today’s orchid vendor’s offer a staggering variety of orchids, from really tiny Platystele to gargantuan Grammatophyllum.

 One genus that have gathered some popularity among the fans of  “botanicals” is Bulbophyllum.   With more than a thousand species this genus shows a tremendous variety in flower size and pollination strategies.   But there are some groups in this genus whose peculiarities make them stand out from the crowd, among these are the members of the section Lepidorhiza, which have among the largest flowers of all Bulbophyllum.   Probably the best  known species of the Lepidorhiza group, at least in Puerto Rico, is Bulbophyllum echinolabium

Bu the fact that this is a well known plant is relative, Bulb. echinolabium plants are not common among local orchid growers and in consequence you see adult plants of this species in orchid shows only occasionally.   Given the large size of the flowers, 16 inches from top to bottom, bright colors, unusual  flower configurations and a sequential blooming habit you would think that these plants would be wholeheartedly embraced by many orchid growers.  But in this you are wrong, unfortunately these Bulbophyllum have among the most appalingly disgusting fragrances in all the Orchidaceae.

It so happens that these orchids are pollinated by carrion flies.  The bright colors we find so attractive are the way the plant mimic the appearance of the slightly decomposed cadaver of a small animal.  The strangely shaped lips disguise a mechanism to trap the flies against the column to ensure the pollinia is glued to their bodies.   And the fragrances are designed to fool the carrion flies into the belief that the flower is a piece of rotting meat..

The fragrance of echinolabium has the unmistakable smell of a pretty ripe decomposing rat.  The first time I had the opportunity to examine a flower of this species was at an orchid society meeting in which Dr. Julio David Rios brought a plant with a single flower.  The flower was impressive and the stench was easily detected but I was left vaguely dissapointed in finding that the descriptions of the stench of this plant were apparently exaggerated.  The second time I found a plant of this species was at an orchid show in San Juan.  I foolishly decided to take a close whiff at a flower that looked quite fresh to see if the smell was the same as the flower I had smelled earlier.

I inhaled deeply and immediately regretted my stupidity.  It was as if a horrible stink bomb had gone off inside my nose, I even felt a few seconds of dizziness because the unexpected might of the loathsome stench was almost overwhelming.   I spent a moment in bemused amazement at the unsavory experience.  The stench of the flower is indeed powerful at close quarters and truly gut churning.  And you are getting this impression from someone who has dissected all sort of worms, insects, amphibians, birds, rats and even road kill when he was studying biology.  After that olfactory experience I pondered in wonder about the people that had transported the plant to the show in their car.  I don’t think they can be put in the trunk as the flowers are somewhat delicate and can become damaged if exposed to temperatures that are too high or to combustion gases.
So although these are handsome plants I don’t foresee seeing them for sale at Home Depot or Walmart any time soon, they will continue to be the province of hard core orchid growers and of anosmic ones.  I have never grown this plant so I can’t give any first hand advice about its culture but maybe someday I will try it, of course if I can find a place very far from the house to keep it when it is in bloom.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The Bulbophyllum lepidum flowers: Like porn for flies.

Incoming!
My Bulbophyllum lepidum showing several inflorescences

Those flowers look... Hmmm... so alluring and soft and nice smelling

Hey you!  Are you talking to me!

Do you come here often?

Can I buy you a drink?

Your place of mine?  Hey, hey, stop!, stop! !@$%#@$%##^%^%$&$!!!!!!!
 Bulbophylum lepidum is a small orchid that produces inflorescences that resemble half a daisy.  It comes as somewhat of a surprise that a plant in the orchid group will try to resemble a plant in the Compositaceae, the group that includes daisies.  But it all has to do with the need to attract pollinators.  It seems that in this orchid original haunts the local pollinators are strongly attracted to daisies.  Each petal of the “daisy” is an individual orchid flower.  To make things even more interesting the lip of the flowers is hinged and carefully balanced.  If a fly steps on to it, the lip suddenly bends downwards against the column of the flower putting the fly in contact with the adhesive parts at the base of the pollinia.  I have seen unwary flies tumble head first into the flowers of Bulb. lepidum and their reaction never fails to amuse me.
The flowers seem to be mighty attractive to certain small flies.  I have tried to detect what could be so alluring for the flies but so far I have not been able to perceive any fragrance or objectionable smell.  I have to add that the flowers are apparently not attractive all the time, I have only seen activity on them in middle morning.   Whatever attractant the orchid uses to seduce the flies, it is impressively effective.  The flies seem mesmerized by the flowers and become reluctant to fly away from the area.  The fact that my garden is packed with a plethora of reptile, amphibian and arachnid predators that view these insects as flying sandwiches, make this detail even more amazing.   The flies give the impression that they are observing the flowers with the intensity and attentiveness that humans usually reserve to porn, boxing events and lottery drawings.   This disregard for the proximity of potential danger, in which the flies throw caution to the wind, has allowed me to take surprisingly close photos of the flies with my point and shoot camera.  But let’s explain what happens when a fly gets land of a flower.
The flies land on the lip of the flower and then proceed to orient themselves over the long axis of the flower.  Then they slowly move closer to the base of the flower and to the lip.  This may take some time and may be preceded by several flights around the flower as the fly react to alarming stimuli or to other flies buzzing nearby.  Eventually some of the flies step into the lip and are flipped against the column. 
The sudden flip into the column is a startling and frightening event for the flies and you can hear them buzzing loudly and wagging their legs violently.  With only one exception all the flies that have gone through this ordeal have extricated themselves from the flower quickly and flown away with great alacrity so that I have lost them from sight.  On the single case I was able to make observations after the fly had fallen into the flower, I could see the yellow pollinia in the back of the fly.  The fly with the pollinia stood still for a while and then flew away, apparently none the worse for having the pollinia on its back.
Of all my Bulbophyllum this species is the most hardy and undemanding.  It has been growing in the same tree fern pole for the last six years and has covered most of it.  It blooms faithfully for several months every year.  Because it has many pseudobulbs that bloom following their own particular time table the plant has flowers intermittently over a period of months instead of a single flush of many inflorescences at the same time. Each inflorescence last only a few days, they last even less time if they are damaged by strong rain.
My plant is fertilized with 20-20-20 at the rate of one teaspoon per gallon every week during the growing season.  I don’t fertilize if the plant is not producing new growth.
It is grown in what is called “Cattleya light” conditions, which is stronger than for most of my other Bulbophyllums which like more shade, but suits this species fine.  My plant grows better under brighter light and blooms more often.  It gets watered every day when the weather is hot to avoid dehydration.  The rest of the year it can grow fine watered two times a week, but remember I live in a tropical country with a high degree of environmental humidity.
Temperatures locally fluctuate during the year from 65F at night in winter to 95 during the day in the height of the summer.  There is a 10F difference in temperature between the day’s high and low temperatures.

Monday, December 20, 2010

For those who want to grow an eye-popping orchid, Blc. Memoria Crispin Rosales

Blc. Memoria Crispin Rosales

My hand in the back gives a scale to judge the size of this flower

This photo shows the tree fern pole, the roots and the size of the flower in relation to the size of the plant.


In recent years the interest of the more advanced orchid growers has been moving away from the traditionally grown genera and toward a rarer, more exotic fare.  That doesn’t mean that the most commonly grown genera are ignored, just that growers want to explore new and interesting forms in their flowers.  However for most of the public the Cattleya and its hybrids are still the stereotypical orchid.  I am not immune to their allure and I do grow a few Cattleya along with the orchids with weird and peculiar flowers.
But since it takes the same effort to grow a mediocre plant than a good plant I have tried to get the best Cattleya that I could afford.   One that I like a lot is Blc. Memoria Crispin Rosales, the reason is this plant capacity to produce enormous, brightly colored, eye popping flowers.  Blc. Memoria Crispin Rosales is an old hybrid produced in 1959 from a cross between Lc. Bonanza and Blc. Norma’s Bay.  There are many clones of this hybrid in the market, all are big and brightly colored but differ in details of the flower form and their shade of coloring.
But getting your plant to produce those enormous flowers demands some attention to their culture and growing needs.  My plant is rather picky when it comes to its growing media, it hates water retentive closely packed media and grows poorly on it.  For that reason I have it on a tree fern pole where its roots can roam freely in any direction they chose.  Another thing it has is that it is a pest magnet, white flies and scales seem to regard it as the most delicious meal imaginable.  I control both pests with a spray bottle full or alcohol and a Q-tip.  The alcohol kills white fly on contact and the Q-tip helps me scrape off any scale I see in the plant.  The issue here is that you have to inspect your plant from time to time to make sure it is not taken over by these pesky pests.  I recommend that every month or so you devote some time to inspect your plant for pests.  Killing the pests when they are few is much easier that when they have multiplied and damaged your plant.  Black rot has been a problem also but only when there is a spell of many rainy days that is accompanied with temperatures in the sixties.  In the years I have had this plant it has lost several pseudobulbs to rots that attacked  and propagated with surprising speed.
I have experimented with growing my plant in several light levels.  When grown in low light it won’t bloom.  I had my plant in a shadier position when it was young as I was concerned its root system was too puny to expose it to bright light that might have dehydrated it.  In middle light level my plant produces a single enormous flower as you can see in the photos.  In stronger light it usually produces two flowers of a nice but unremarkable size.  In the strongest light it can produce two or three flowers. When the plant tries to produce three flowers the last flower has been weaker and smaller than the first two.  I am sure that my plant would be stronger growing in a pot with an airy non organic media rather than in a pole but for the time being it will stay in the pole.  I water my plant every day in the summer when weather is at its hottest but only once or twice a week when temperatures are in the seventies.  I guide myself by how plump I see the pseudobulbs, if they are dehydrated I water.  I give it fertilizer weekly but only when it is producing new growth.
So if you want to grow an orchid that will reward your care with some of the largest flowers in the Cattleya alliance, Blc Memoria Crispin Rosales is really worth the modest amount of effort needed to grow it to its best.    Nowadays the staggering variation in the flowers of the Cattleya alliance means that there are flowers that can fit the taste of even the most demanding orchid grower, however Blc. Memoria Crispin Rosales has stood the test of time.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Vandachnis Premier, a large growing orchid that will delight and impress visitors

Vandachnis Coronation is a hybrid of Arachnis  flos aeris and Vandopsis lissochiloides

When the sun backlights the flowers they show a beautiful yellow color

A single inflorescence, the inflorescences can grow to five feet of lenght

Five plants were grown side by side so that their inflorescences would bloom together

The aim is to delight the viewer with a massed display of flowers
Most orchidists I know grow their orchids in pots and baskets so that they can be easily moved for display,for cultural reasons or to protect them from the weather. But there are some plants that become too large to grow this way. These plants are generally displayed in the growing area since moving them is not an option. As a result many large growing monopodial orchids are usually grown in the midst of a plethora of other orchids in pots, baskets, stands and along with other garden brick-brack this often means that their flowers are not displayed to their best advantage. Given that even one of these plants can take a big chunk of real state when grown to full size, it is understandable why few people have groupings of them. My plants of Vandachnis Coronation have large and showy inflorescences and I decided to grow together a few of them so that when the plants bloomed there would be a mass of flowers to delight and impress the visitors to my garden.

But even though this plan sounds as a fairly easy proposition growing a group of Vandachnis takes some planning given their large size and slow rate of growth. First you need a place where you can grow the plants undisturbed for at least three years. This length of time is dictated by the fact that although by its Vandopsis parent standards of growth these plants grow lightning fast by the Arachnis parent standard their growth rate is glacially slow. Also you need an area where there is good support for the stems of these plants. Vandachnis Coronation can bloom well when it is six feet tall, but they bloom even better when they reach seven or more feet. The inflorescence of a small plant can be a single unbranched modest affair, the inflorescence of a tall and strong plant can have four branches and be five feet long.

I placed five plants fairly close together side by side in 2006 and started caring for them and waiting. In 2008 I got the grouping of inflorescences that I wanted. As you can see in the photos there were dozens of flowers massed together. The flowers of Vandachnis are relatively thick and leathery and an inflorescence can spend weeks opening new flowers. This means that the display lasted for about three months before all the flowers had fallen. But the blooming was at its best for about a month, just after most of its flowers had opened by before the first ones to open had started to drop.

Unfortunately the plants were damaged by the winds of a storm which meant that the blooming 2008 is still their best show. However I am planning to put a new group together and see if I can get even more inflorescences and flowers all at the same time.
For cultural advice on this plant go to: http://ricardogupi.blogspot.com/2008/10/arachnis-culture.html