This stunning, fragrant orchid was believed to be extinct in the wild until recently. It prefers to grow at between 800 –1500 metres near the sea in the shady light offered by broad-leaved evergreen forests. Although it had long been greatly celebrated by the Vietnamese, it was first discovered by Europeans in 1913 in N. Vietnam – a mere fifty years before most of the known central wild populations were destroyed by herbicides during the Vietnam war. It was later joyously rediscovered in Nha Trang, S.E.Vietnam in 1993 and in the former French hill station of Da Lat.
This small group is now endangered again through over-collection for the horticultural trade. Until its rediscovery, all Pahiopedilum delenatii plants in cultivation originated from a few specimens collected in 1922 by the Frenchman Poilane and which were given to the French nurseryman family whose name is famous throughout the orchid world, Lecoufle. P. delenatii preferred to grow terrestrially in mossy, shaded crevices facing south and south-east, surrounded by ferns such as Humata repens and Schizaea digitata and other orchids – its roots clinging closely to the acidic granite and gneiss rocks found in s.w. China and southward through Vietnam to the Bi Dup mountains near Da Lat. It thrived in a climate where winter humidity between October and February is high, and where the dry season between April and September is softened by damp air which rises from nearby streams and rivers and where light shade is provided by open montane forest trees such as Podocarpus nerifolius and Dacrycarpus imbricatus.
Although basking in a year-round temperature which remains between 23 – 28 degrees, flowers are put forth for only a brief period – between December and January. In these malarial areas, mosquitoes may play a part in pollinating this and many other plants, but P. delenatii is believed to have been mainly pollinated by bees. P. delenatii was described by Francois Guillaumin in 1924 and named in honour of the director of the botanic garden in St Germain en Laye, M. Delenat, despite the plant having been found in 1913 in Tonkin by a soldier.
I painted this plant from the lovingly tended orchid collection in the greenhouses of the Jardin d’ Auteuil, Paris. During the many happy months I painted there, I developed a deep respect for French horticulturists who look after the plants in their care so well. © Frances Livingstone 2018