This Paphiopedilum used to be found in ancient limestone hills which are generally so important for local endemism as they have been an available habitat for millennia. Paphiopedilum niveum was previously abundant in partially shaded areas which are not exposed to full sun, or which have regular, if temporary, cloud cover. It is recognised as a limestone endemic, native to Thailand, Myanmar, Borneo and northern peninsula Malaysia.
This plant was one of several which I painted during one of many long Parisian stays. I was fortunate enough to be allowed to paint spectacular and beautifully tended plants growing in the private collection of the French Senat, in the Serres du Luxembourg, Paris. Every morning, I walked across the Jardins, through the gates in a high wall, across the cobbled courtyard, into a greenhouse and installed myself in a corridor, surrounded by breathtaking plants but with eyes only for my current painting and whatever minute changes may have occurred during the night. The lovely gardeners and I practised our English and French on each other, with many hilarious mistakes, mainly – of course ! – on my side. At the end of the day, several of us usually repaired to my “ headquarters”, the Rostand cafe, for a restorative “apero” to kick off the evening in the best possible way.
The first P. niveum plants to reach Europe were found in a narrow zone on the Malayan peninsula near the Malaysia /Thai border. They can be found – though less and less easily – in Thailand, Myanmar, Borneo and northern peninsula Malaysia. often growing in small clusters in humus pockets in limestone tower and labyrinthine karst hills at from sea level to 200m. P. niveum could also be found in evergreen forests on often shaded, north-facing vertical rocks away from direct sunlight. Depending on whereabouts in its range they are growing, flowering seasons can vary slightly. In southern Thailand, flowering roughly corresponds with the May to November rainy season, and elsewhere is unusual in having a protracted though scattered flowering season from August to October.
Insects enter a potential death trap. Enticed alluringly, though utterly misleadingly, by large white petals and a very faint yet promising scent which however does not lead them to nectar, insects of the wrong size can be lucky to get out alive. Steep, shiny walls with in-curving upper edges imprison some unfortunate insects who are too small or too large to grab the hairs at the back and haul themselves out through the restricted tunnel to freedom beyond. But one of P. niveum’s pollinators, Tetragonula testaceitarsis, is just the right size. It belongs to the sting-less Melaponine bee group whose queens never forage – and males only rarely – so, unsurprisingly, workers do the work.
It is heartbreaking to think that future generations, who will love natural beauty as much – if not much more – than we do, may never have the chance to see something this beautiful growing where it belongs. © Frances Livingstone 2018