Paphinia cristata is endemic to and was once widespread throughout northern South America including Trinidad. It is now believed to be extremely rare in the wild, though the cultivation of drugs in some of the humid forests it would, no doubt, prefer to continue inhabiting, make research into its distribution rather more than difficult.
John Lindley, “father of modern orchidology”, first described this species in 1843 in his publication Edwards’ Botanical Register. Lindley seems to have found this orchid especially enchanting as he selected its name based on the Cypriot city of Paphos, which has enjoyed fame through more than a millennia as the birthplace of Aphrodite, goddess of love and beauty. As was regarded entirely normal at that time, the Register’s technical description was written exclusively in Latin. Well, sua cuique voluptas.
P. cristata can still very occasionally be found growing in damp forests at between 50-1000 metres in Panama, Colombia, Venezuela, Guyana, Suriname, French Guiana and Trinidad. Sometimes it is hard to fathom why certain species appear, albeit in slightly different form, many thousands of miles apart – even allowing for shifting land masses. But Trinidad was so obviously once part of the South American land mass that presumably geology also plays a part in the distribution of P. cristata. At present the genus Paphinia numbers sixteen epiphytic species. P. cristata is scentless but nonetheless appeals to Euglossini bees – perhaps attracted by as yet unidentified chemical lures ? And are its densely haired upper surfaces part of the attraction ?
P. cristata is thought to be rare even in cultivation. For months at a time, I cycled to “work“ in the gardener’s mess room at the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, where I painted this image from a plant raised in the lovingly tended endangered orchid collection there. The particular difficulty of growing this plant away from its chosen habitat makes its unusual three flowered beauty even more of a horticultural triumph.The original plant [ whose descendant is portrayed here } arrived at the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew as a seedling. As part of an ongoing conservation effort, it was propagated many times by division until it died in 1977, far from the Trinidadian tree whose branches had suspended it over the misty Aripo river. © Frances Livingstone 2018