Jewels of the Jungle
by Ma Thanegi
Orchids have mesmerized
people for centuries and continue to work their enchantment. Like beautiful
dryads of mythology, they weave spells with their beauty, and tease their owners
with their moods and whims. They bloom if they will, depending on weather,
atmosphere and probably sheer willfulness. They flop over and die if they so wish.
To grow them is like looking after a bevy of beautiful prima donnas.
The name orchid comes from the Latin orchis, while the Bama name Thit Khwa
simply means "Fork of a tree"... where they are most likely to be found. The most loved
orchid of Myanmar however is not known by this name: it is Thazin, (Bulbophyllum
auricomum) which blooms with tiny white flowers in graceful sprays that grow out
of a small, bright-green, pear shaped bulb. Moreover, they are headily fragrant. Once they used to be so rare that
on pain of death no commoner however wealthy was allowed to wear it in the hair. It was only meant for queens and
princesses and special envoys had to go deep into the jungles to bring back some
with due pomp and ceremony. The best comes from the Rakhine Yoma mountain
ranges. Now people grow it easily with bulbs collected from the jungles but even
then it is an expensive flower that brides drape around their high chignons.
With many exotic orchids available, the fragile purityof Thazin and its light perfume suits the
bride as no other flower can.
Orchids although they grow on trees are not parasites: they are too noble and proud to
live off the nutrients sucked from the tree. Orchids survive on rain, air and light. Even on
this seemingly meager substance they seem
to live forever unless attacked by a virus or drastic changes in weather. They do not give
anything to the tree, which serves its purpose only as a throne for the Orchids to rest.
The aristocracy of China had been collecting orchids for three thousand years and the
earliest books on them were written by Chinese specialists in the early 13th century. Only
in the early 19th century did it became popular in the West, and one of the earliest was
Cattleya labiata, which was grown from plants used as packing material in a box sent to
a horticulturist named William Cattley. That was how the "Cattleya" hybrids came into being,
the name that IS common even to those who don't know the orchid from the lily.
Myanmar with its tropical jungles, clean mountain air and rich green virgin forests was
one of the places that orchid hunters were once the sent to find rare species for collectors willing
to pay thousands of pounds. By now many countries including Myanmar bans export of
rare species, knowing them to be national treasures.
They do look like gems or works of art with
exotic colours and creative arrangements of their five petals and one lip. The
different colours, designs and shapes they can come up with on just these six components are amazing.
Even a common enough species, the Thandar Lay or Little Coral as known in Myanmar
(Ascocentrum curvifolium) has specks of silver that glints in the sunlight on its red petals. Once
in a while rumours are heard about a huge white orchid with bigger patches
of silver spotted in the Northern jungles. As yet none has been recorded.
In Myanmar there are many indigenous species, a rare one which was recently discovered
in the Shan State, Phalaeposis mannii variety alba (cover photo). The flowers are approximately 3cm at the widest point and a gold-green
in colour. Only one plant has so far been found in Myanmar and at present is blooming in a private
collection in Yangon. Enchanting Myanmar is proud to have this orchid as its cover as it has
never appeared in any publications before.
Another rare specie is the Black Orchid (Paphiopedilum Wardil) or by its official Bama
name Khun Mya Hlaing, a name
less common than the 11 Thit-khwa Net' or Black Orchid used by the locals of Putao region where this plant
thrives. The pale green dorsal petal is large, with stripes of a darker green. Two side petals are
slender and a dark almost-black in colour. The lip is full like a cup. It has a look of majesty.
The species more rare than the Black Orchid is "Mway Mintha" the Snake Prince,
(Paphiopedilum charlesworthii) which takes its name from the sad fairy tale known to all
Myanmar children. It is the tale of a young prince cursed by a witch to
live his days as a snake and only at night to resume human form. There is no account of how this plant came to
be named so, but it is homage done to a be loved fairy-tale figure. The flowers are a pretty
mauve, with a rounded dorsal petal with a crimped top edge.
Other exotic but not as rare are the
Dendobrium brymerianum of Northern Myanmar, a fleshy golden bloom with strands
of the same colour falling like whiskers from the lip; the colourful Dendobrium falconeri
which has white flowers with the tips of the petals stained a deep purple as if dipped in
paint. The inside of the lip is lined with bright yellow. One of the
most spectacular orchids is the Hygrochilus gigantae looking almost like a
butterfly with red patches on its white thick petals.
By now, although Thazin is still Top Orchid, people are growing many other varieties. In the
Shan and Kachin States, beautiful if not rare species can be bought in the market.
The Bago Yoma mountain ranges, the Rakhine jungles, the forests around Pyin 00
Lwin, Kalaw, Monywa, etc are some of the places where wild orchids can be seen just out of reach
in the high branches. Whether they would deign to bloom for you is another matter,
because for some growers they burst forth in blossoms as if joyously singing and for others
they remained primly without flowers.
The more hardy hybrids are popular everywhere as housewives having a number of pots
can enjoy the blooms for a few days before sending them off to the markets' flower stalls to
be sold. Housewives call this type of small extra income "Cost of curry": that they could at least
cover the cost of daily meals. Commercial growers on a bigger scale are also
growing in number.
Orchids have been collected, stolen, cloned, hybrids produced, smuggled, bought and sold
for huge amounts, generating a craze from which few once addicted can hope to free
themselves. These flowers of the forests continue and will continue to weave their
enchantment as long as our environment stays to their liking.
(The writer appreciates the information and photos so generously given by U Kyaw