This stately, scented orchid has a wide range, including Australia, Malaysia, Indonesia and parts of Thailand. It prefers open grassland, swamps and rich black soil where the plants can reach a height of two meters, with leaves a meter long. It thrives in tropical rainforest, lowland forest and scrub at up to 900 metres. It is so adaptable that it was once widespread. Now, in Jamaica, it is threatened by cattle grazing. In parts of India such as Arunachal Pradesh it is under constant threat from over-collection and land “development” etc. to the point of endangerment. The uses to which this plant is put by local communities for medicines, dyes and other purposes, such as the making of rope bags to be worn on the forehead, known as bilas in Papua New Guinea, are so numerous that its vulnerability is very worrying indeed. By contrast, in some parts of the world, such as Hawaii, its beauty and adaptability have made it so popular as an introduced exotic, that it has spread alarmingly well, and, lacking natural controls, has become an invasive species which threatens native plants.
This painting was created whilst I was living in a remote meditation hut in a Dipterocarp forest on the slopes of Doi Sutep, just north of Chiang Mai. The hut had been kindly lent to me as the lady monk who normally inhabited it had gone to Korea for a year to further her training. I shared it with only a black spider as big as my circled hands who lived in the concrete basin that, with a bucket, served as a “shower”. I decided to name her [?] rather than try to remove her as she had a prior claim to the residence. “Suzanna” and I had an agreement that I wouldn’t bother her if she didn’t bother me and it worked well during the months that we co-habited.
During one of my many walks with the nearest monastery’s exuberant gang of half-wild yet wholly charismatic temple dogs, I found this beautiful specimen growing in a rusty petrol can in the temple grounds. It was responding magnificently to the adoration of the forest monk who then generously lent it to me to paint.
The genus name Phaius appears to derive from the Greek word phaios. meaning grey or swarthy. The connection seems rather a stretch but may refer to its brownish flowers. Joseph Banks first described it but as he was somewhat distracted by his duties as both advisor to George III and as President of the Royal Society, its eventual formal description was achieved by L’ Heritier. The plant was originally brought to England in 1778 for the physician, botanist and Quaker, John Fothergill and so may well have been put somewhere in the glasshouses of his personal botanic garden near Stratford upon Avon but I soon abandoned my attempt to track it down through the turgid though fascinating plant list contained in Hortus Uptonensis.
P. tankervilleae was first placed in the genus Limodorum, but in 1852 was transferred to Phaius and named for Lady Tankerville. Clearly a passionate horticulturist, she amassed one of the largest collections of plants in greater London. She was also a patron of botanical illustration, commissioning various artists including Joseph Pierre Redouté. Yet it seems reasonable to suppose that this Phaius was actually grown not by Lady Tankerville herself but by her gardener, William Robinson, so, my own taxonomic “contribution” is that during any further manouvers, it could be re-named P. Robinsonii.
Various forms are known, some of which are self-pollinating, helping to ensure its success as an introduced species into areas with various or non-existent pollinators. Allogamous forms are pollinated by Xylocopa bees. The strong, sweet scent fools various other insects including flies and butterflies into the flowers in search of food, sadly a fruitless task as there is no nectar. Yet only the young and inexperienced members of the carpenter bee species, Xylocopa violacea are known to pollinate – at least until they learn not to bother. © Frances Livingstone 2018