This painting began its journey at Kew, where these Encyclia specimens were on show in the Princess of Wales Conservatory. To complete the painting, I travelled to Mexico. During a wonderful three month stay in Xalapa I was shown Prosthechea vitellina leaves growing on a pine tree only a bus ride and walk away from my lodgings. The conical hill was densely covered in a wide variety of plants of great beauty and I painted what I found growing there in association with the P. vitellina. Research by botanists and ornithologists at the Institut Écológica in Xalapa concluded that this orchid was likely to be pollinated by any or all of the resident and migrant birds I therefore included here – noted as “ likely “ on the legend.
When I returned to the hill a week later, I found devastation – only trees stumps rising from denuded earth. Local families owned the land and were working to stack the sawn trees into piles. They told me that this orchid was called mannuelitos and that they had destroyed all for firewood – “to cook chickens & cows” Seeing my distress, they kindly tried to comfort me by explaining that they would be replanting with other, more useful trees, but I felt too saddened, nor had I the Spanish, to mention irreversible biodiversity loss. The habitat P. vitellina had chosen to make its home is amongst the Central American sections of the pine oak cloud forests which flourish near lava fields along the volcanic mountain range which spans the east coasts of South & North America. Mexico and Guatemala have provided the perfect habitat, especially the provinces of Chiapas, Oaxaca, Vera Cruz and Puebla. All have been graced by this lovely orchid. It is so well adapted to the cool conditions which prevail in these forests at between 1400 – 2600m, that it can even survive frozen pseudobulbs in winter.
Although it seems able to flower for longer periods, P. vitellina’s main flowering season is from April to September. As the only orchid in Central America producing orange/red flowers, it seems most likely that hummingbirds are part of its survival strategy. Mexico has about fifty species of hummingbirds of which none seem to have a sense of smell. They are, however, irresistibly drawn to the brilliant hues of vermilion, red, orange and orange yellow flowers that cannot be seen as such by bees, so to hummingbirds, scent becomes irrelevant. Most Encyclias, however, are scented – perhaps to attract a wider range of pollinators ? Unlike so many hummingbird-pollinated orchids which have evolved the most cleverly camouflaged pollinia in shades of brown, grey and blue to closely match many beak colours thereby avoiding the bird’s natural reaction of trying to scrape off an annoying foreign substance before it has been successfully transplanted to the next flower, P. vitellina has tiny pale yellow pollinia – maybe too tiny to trigger removal attempts ?
Yet none of the strategies evolved over millennia by the orchid, its pollinators and associated fungi etc. can withstand the relentless predations of humans. So this orchid is, at present, endangered. © Frances Livingstone 2018