China, Myanmar and Thailand all used to have this spectacular orchid growing freely in the wild but its appearances are now so dangerously rare that it is on the Cites endangered species list. This plant was sheltering in one of the glasshouses of the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, and when I was offered a chance to paint it there I could hardly wait. Apart from its elegant beauty, I remember noting the long twisted petals reflex back, little by little, over several days as the flower aged – and wondered if this was a signal to pollinators to “ come hither, you gorgeous thing ” or “ you’re too late – try the one behind ? ”
Since then, I’ve learnt that new Chinese research has shown that this orchid can self-pollinate by bending its flowers whilst liquifying its anther until it reaches the stigma. This self-pollinating option is thought to have developed in response to an unreliable supply of insect pollinators in the damp, broad leaved forests it prefers.The first Westener to find P. parishii was apparently a missionary named Charles Parish. Despite being surrounded by spectacular beauty of every sort, it must have been a breathtaking moment for him when he spotted this orchid growing on the oak-leaved basket fern, Dryanaria quercifolia, whilst travelling in1859 through the Moulmein area of Myanmar. On that occasion, this fascinating orchid was growing epiphytically, but, in common with the only other Paphiopedilum known to be this versatile, P. villosum, it can also grow lithophytically, on rocks. However, both the branches and rocks chosen by this orchid as suitable homes share densely mossy and therefore damp, root-holds.
Somewhat mysteriously, P. parishii prefers deeply shaded east facing slopes, coping with extremes of temperature on the Shan Plateau which range throughout the year from 35 degrees to well below freezing. Flowers are normally produced between May and July, when its hoverfly pollinators are seeking egg-laying sites. Seed capsules can take five months to mature.
Elsewhere, this orchid’s range extends from Thai mountain slopes to the south west of Yunnan, China. In Thailand, branches of the “Indian laurel“, Terminalia alata, seem to offer, for reasons as yet unknown, a particularly attractive foothold for P. parishii, though as new antifungal properties have been discovered in this tree, perhaps therein lies part of the explanation. © Frances Livingstone 2018