Orchids of the Golden Triangle

Orchids of the Golden Triangle

Bernard McDonald

If you thought that a golden triangle was full of butter or cheese then this will come as a surprise…! Bernard is a former member of SDOS, and has delivered lectures previously, mainly on the subject of Bulbophyllums of which he is a nationally recognised expert.

The golden triangle is another of the worldwide infamous drug areas (of varying shapes). It is the area of northern Thailand, stretching out to the ocean on the west (in Burma) and Laos in the East, and includes the city/province of Chiang Mai and the Chiang Rai/Phayao provinces to the north east. Bernard hasn’t been in the area a great deal, but is presenting images from the collection of Rick Jacobs, a retired geophysicist who worked in the oil industry, but with particular interest in habitat loss and deforestation. Bernard got to know Rick about 10 year ago through an Australian orchid chat forum. They have been in close contact sharing information on orchids ever since. After retiring 10 years ago from his world travels he is now a subsistence farmer alongside his Thai wife. Thailand is a huge country with monsoon forests with wet & dry seasons which encourages deciduous trees, and the same for many orchids. The country itself has many contrasts and is now trying to escape its drug image whilst promoting tourism, especially along the Mekong River. Here, and in the larger cities hotels and comfortable houses are the order of the day, whilst out in the countryside subsistence is key with tree houses the habitat of choice – anything to get off the floor from the snakes. Not all of the subsistence farming is quite what it may seem as big business is pushing the peasants into higher elevations to continue the slash and burn deforestation that has now been ongoing for over 40 years. Tribes are cutting down valuable hardwoods, often illegally and they get a few dollars for the trees whilst the larger logging companies end up with thousands. It all starts off with forest tracks that get a bit bigger with a horse and cart to start the first extractions, then 4X4s and winches get a hold, and finally the path becomes a road, then eventually a highway. It is a familiar story around the world. The remaining forest is burned to degrade it, so that eventually it can be used for agriculture where the coffee bean is the new king. Authorities tend to turn a blind eye as it creates some revenue as well as jobs. The forest burn is now an annual event from January to June which has sadly become known as the ‘Smoke Season’. Alongside this of course the small tribal villages become larger towns.

This has decimated the countryside at lower altitudes. Most of this has now been cleared, and the deforestation is moving uphill. Trees are now replaced with rice terraces. Further away from the towns forests still exist, and orchids are found above 500′. Rick has used GPS over the last few years to record the forest health – and it is changing for the worse. Bulb. siamense is one of the most common plants where it is locally abundant as a lithophyte, as does Coel. viscosa which can grow into huge specimens. A bit higher up (up to 2000′), Pho. (syn. Coel.) recurva also gets large. Crepidium klimkoanum is an interesting plant with around 15 x 2″ flowers. Cleisostoma simondii is quite an impressive Vandaceous species with small flowers and spiny leaves. Not all orchids are epiphytes or lithophytes, and Cym. sinense grows up to 18″ tall with dark brown flowers, whereas Cym. aloifolium will reach 3′ tall with leaves 2″ wide. The flowers are nicely striped. Liparis odorata is quite common and Platanthera stenoglossa creates a jumble of a plant with attractive small pink flowers. Cheirostylis pusilla is a species that Rick has collected seed pods from and raised seedlings which he has reintroduced into the forest at various locations (marked by GPS). Geodorum citrinum is an interesting terrestrial with a short habit and attractive flowers from white to pink, although the specie type is yellow as indicated by the name, and it is a relative of Cymbidium/Eulophia.

Obviously the environment thrives through diversity, and plants especially orchids cannot thrive without pollinators, and so there is a range of insects, caterpillars and bugs as well as larger animals that prey on them such as the Asian Jay. Some horrendous looking spiders might scare you, and if they don’t then the snakes (huge Pythons et al.) will, whilst frogs might keep you awake at night.

Phal. pulcherrima can easily be seen when in flower as it grows both epiphytically and terrestrially. Hetaeria affinis is another terrestrial that creates a tall poker like spike of small hairy white flowers. A range of Dendrobium species are also easily seen when in flower with the smallish indivisum, up to 5′ tall chrysanthum with yellow flowers, and infundibulum with its large white flowers. harveyanum is a medium sized plant with fimbriated yellow flowers. Venustum is widespread from 1000′ to 6500′ and produces a mass of 1″ flowers on short canes. senile is notably hairy, and only produces small yellow flowers when it has almost dried out to the point of near death. bellatulum is quite a squat plant with white flowers and a yellow lip.

Trichotosia dasyphylla is a very hairy plant, whereas Ornithochilus difformis has very unusual shaped yellow and red flowers with curving lip and appendages. It is a member of the Aerides section. Oberonia pachyrachis is a very compact plant with a short spike and small flowers. Vanilla siamensis is thought to be the only Vanilla left in this part of the world, and is now very rare. Rick is closely monitoring a group of them. Habenaria rhodocheila is a common terrestrial in leaf litter with lots of pink or yellow flowers. Hemipilia calophylla is another terrestrial found in rocky areas where its pink flowers sparkle.

Vanda denisoniana is supposedly rare, but actually common and easily spotted with its yellow or orange flowers. V. flabellata colonises trees where it grows on accumulated detritus in virgin forest. Its future could become uncertain. Holcoglossum amesianum is a smallish Vandaceous species from higher altitudes with white and pink flowers and it has mastered the art of self pollination, although it hasn’t made it common. V. pumilla is a smallish species that likes the cooler elevated locations.

Porpax fibuliformis is unusual amongst orchids in that it has 8 pollinia on much squashed bulbs. Thunia alba is quite normal, and easily spotted when in flower, however, out of flower it looks just like many other reed type plants within the jungle. Tainia bicornis is yellow, and has 2 horns at the top of the column (as indicated by the name). Polystachya concreta is a terrestrial common to all tropical areas. Coelogyne trinervis isn’t actually native to this region, but has been introduced from Rick’s own collection (it is native in nearby Laos). Eulophia spectabilis makes huge specimens at over 1m tall. It comes from more open areas where it will survive occasional fires (slash & burn), and can therefore be rescued.

Many plants are rescued from the jungle, especially prior to the smoke season and potted up to grow to flowering size and eventually put out onto local trees as well as collecting seed pods for future reintroductions into diverse locations. The future doesn’t look over promising though as the jungle only functions over very large areas. Isolated areas of several acres cannot recreate the same environment. Over the last 10 years Rick has noted that the dry periods are getting longer and flowering seasons are moving later.

After a couple of questions we thanked Bernard for Rick’s presentation, and wish him well for the future. If we can learn anything from this it is that natives kill orchids, and not international trade.