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.

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