The Valley of Eternal Spring used to owe part of its beauty to small yet flourishing clusters of the ethereally lovely Jade Slipper Orchid. Its light raspberry fragrance drifted through the humid air beneath shady bamboos and rare conifers, mingling with the perfume of rhododendrons and heath family shrubs such as Vaccinum, to ensure pollination by bees and, possibly, syrphid flies.Thanks to frequent mists and leathery leaves, it survived winter droughts until the summer rains arrived, and, at the beginning of the year, put forth elegant stems – each bearing one perfect, translucent flower.
Its roots and spreading rhizomes, moistened by small streams of water and dew, clung to mossy leaf litter found on crystalline limestone rocks and sloping grassy areas. It thrived in these dense evergreen forests, facing north and eastwards, towards the great limestone massif of southern China, and was helped to flourish by the nearly constant temperatures common to tropical high plateaux. Paphiopedilum malipoense used to grow on the limestone cliffs of S.China and N.Vietnam, at between 570 and 1600 metres but the dry evergreen forests have been so extensively destroyed, mainly for firewood and timber, that although this species had only been discovered in China about fifty years ago it is already considered extinct in the wild in China and highly endangered through over-collection in the small populations recently discovered in Vietnam.
The models for this watercolour painting were flourishing under the focused care of gardeners at the Serres d ‘Auteuil, Paris. These greenhouses not only contain a magnificent collection of orchids but the gardeners who welcome you to share their passion are a warm, generous-spirited crowd. Towards the end of the painting, I began to panic because the bud on the right just wouldn’t open. This mattered only because the painting was to be the star of an imminent London exhibition and I’d envisaged three open flowers. With typical kindness, the gardeners put a 24 hour light bulb near the bud to try and encourage it to open, but without success. The stem just grew and grew. So I painted it exactly as it was. I later learnt that this non-opening of buds – sometimes for up to several months – is not uncommon behaviour in wild P. malipoense plants and is thought to be due to the forests’ occasional very low temperatures.
First officially collected near Wenshun in 1947 by K. M. Feng, P. malipoense was described forty seven years later by Chen and Tsi, who named it for the town of Malipo in whose herbarium the type specimen is held and against which all possible collections are compared. Since then, P. malipoense has been rendered nearly extinct due to systematic and soul-less over-collection for the horticultural trade without regard for future generations, any other parts of that ecosystem which rely on the presence of this orchid to survive, nor indeed apparently anything but the making of a small profit. © Frances Livingstone 2018