Orchids of the Nilgiri Hills

Malcolm is well known in the UK orchid scene, and is now semi retired – old habits die hard. As a professional he used to be the ‘go to’ man if you wanted something unusual or uncommon, especially within the species. He could generally source anything given time. He is now a hobbyist and adviser to various botanic gardens where his encyclopaedic knowledge is of great use. One great benefit to growing orchids is to see them in situ, and he is widely travelled. One place not on his list was India – mainly down to health concerns, but this was changed by a chance meeting at one of the Peterborough shows where a discussion on Paph. druryi was ongoing. Joining in he found that the questioner was from a Tea plantation Family from the Nilgiri hills in southern India. To cut a long story short, after a while Malcolm had an invite to go and stay at the plantation, to go and search for orchids that he is interested in – particularly a small number of Coelogynes from this region that generally aren’t in cultivation. The southern uplands in India are the Ghats, generally divided into the western and eastern parts. This area is very tropical, and at sea level very hot. Up in the mountains despite the closeness to the equator it can be much cooler at times, and in winter can reach -6C at the peaks. The local tribe is the Toda who used to be nomadic buffalo herders, but now are settled. They are given free gas in the nature reserves to avoid them cutting down the trees. The buffalo provide dung for fertiliser. Monsoon rains will often isolate the villages and wash away roads and bridges.

When the Brits colonised India this area became a bolt hole when the cities became too hot. Up the middle slopes tea cultivation started as conditions were suitable. The land is dry during winter, and is mainly grassy, with small copses of evergreens known as sholas in the more sheltered valleys. Tea plants were imported, together with eucalyptus trees to create the summer shade. Coimbatore is the local centre, and the plantation Malcolm stayed at Korabundah is the highest at just under 9000′ above sea level. Tea plantations are around 33% tea, 33% shola and 33% imported trees.

During March the environment is bone dry with clear blue sky. There are no insects about despite it being 50F at night and 70F during the day. This is pleasant for us brits, which is why it is there. The tea grown at this altitude is normally used in blends rather than being specific names. The local wildlife includes Bee Eaters and Flycatchers, lots of butterflies and the Nilgiri Langur which stands up to 5′ tall with a 5′ tail. These are classed as hooligans and a nuisance, but are now sadly becoming more scarce as pressure on the land grows. There are of course tigers and leopards around but less active during the day – they hunt the local ibex (Nilgiri Tahr) at night, and a few nasty snakes to avoid. The most dangerous animal however is the Indian buffalo that kills more humans than the predators put together.

The western Ghats support over 130 endemic orchid species, of which 123 are from the Nilgiri hills, so this is an important botanic area, including Den. barbatum, macrostachyum (similar to aphyllum), ovatum, and the small (obviously) microbulbon. In the lower hills Rhyncostylis retusa is found with its long pendant clusters of pink flowers, as well as Bulbophyllum tramulum. Lower still (and warmer) you find Vanda tessalata and the lovely small yellow flowered V. testacea as well as some natural hybrids. There are of course some terrestrials with the intriguing and rare yellow Paph. druryi (over 1000 miles from its nearest relative) and Acanthephippium bicolor is a short deciduous plant. Catonia pendunculata is a plant whose flowers imitate bees. Pecteilis gigantea has 4″ white flowers . It should be noted that few local Indians have gardens, and that there are no Orchid nurseries in the region.

Coel. mossiae is found here on the trees, and flowers just after the monsoons. Closely related Coel. nervosa is found on the ridges, and this common plant is regularly cultivated. Coel. odoratissima is a highly scented white flower. These are difficult to find when not in flower as they have tended to colonise the imported Grevillea trees. Aerides ringens is a plant that will grow in either full sun or in the shade (where it grows better) with its pendant cluster of tiny white flowers. Eria is a common genus that produces far less flashy flowers. Oberonias will also be found with their 12″ leaves such as brunoniana & verticillata. Seidenfadeniella rosea is a striking plant with pink flowers and needle shaped leaves. At altitude Clalanthe triplicata will be found. This deciduous plant will start growing when frost is still around. Bulbophyllums have some of the weirdest flowers in the entire orchid genus (being the oldest they have had longer to develop), and there are  several in the warmer lowlands. Bulb. nilgherrense (syn. sterile) is one with yellow flowers that smells awful – and consequently not in cultivation. NB The name nilgherrense and variants denotes plants from the Nilgiris. Bulb. fuscopurpureum is quite spectacular with a purple flower, whereas Bulb. fimbriatum is very frilly with a pale flower and it is a deciduous plant. Bulb. aureum is a pretty yellow flower. Habenaria (now Platanthera) longicalcarata is very showy.

The hills/mountains tend to rise up steeply in places (up to 7000′) which causes the wind to rise and cloud to form creating the moist atmosphere at times and in some places. This creates the perfect environment for the elusive Ceol. mossiea which was one of Malcolm’s treats for the trip. Sadly the conditions and time constraints meant that it wasn’t possible to find. Coel. breviscapa was found though – which is still a bit of a mystery being the missing 5th of this group of Indian Coelogynes – it is still under review/debate. This was another tremendous lecture from Malcolm and following a few questions he was given a hearty round of applause. Malcolm Perry