1 May 2017

The Beautiful Butterfly Orchid

Look once, look again.

This is not a butterfly taking a rest on a piece of shrubbery. 

It is Psychopsis papilio – better known as the butterfly orchid.  It has petals of an incredible length which look like antennae and its speckled brown and yellow sepals look like outspread wings. 

Little wonder that this amazing orchid reputedly started the orchidmania of the 1800s.

The sixth Duke of Devonshire, William Cavendish, (pictured above top) happened to have his estate next to the Royal Horticultural Society. While on his daily walks he would often drop in to view new plants brought from over the world. This serendipity would have a profound effect on him and change the course of his life.

This casual interest first became a hobby and then developed in to a life-long obsession with exotic plants, principally orchids.

What began as a casual interest would lead him, eventually to become President of the Royal Horticultural Society in 1838.

Psychopsis consists of 4 species: Psychopsis krameriana, Psychopsis papilio, Psychopsis sanderae, and Psychopsis versteegiana.  The duke was wealthy enough to afford to send men around the world to collect them – and countless other species – for him.

Just before it blooms it even looks remarkably like a butterfly chrysalis.  Yet it was the flower in full bloom which was to entrance the duke.

In 1833 the society held one of its famous exhibitions and it seems that the butterfly orchid particularly entranced the duke and it became the centrepiece of his own collection, contained in a specially built conservatory of huge dimensions.  As word of his collection spread others among the English upper classes followed his lead and began to cultivate these rare and beautiful flowers, creating a new symbol of wealth and power.

The duke had become almost completely deaf at an early age and this, in 19th century England, precluded him from becoming the statesmen expected of someone of his rank and privilege. So, he immersed himself in the world of horticulture.  Political fame eluded the duke but he will always be remembered for the orchidmania his collection provoked – let alone the Cavendish Banana, still today by far the most commercially important banana cultivars.

You might think, given its slender appearance that this is a delicate flower yet the opposite is true.  It will flower for up to ten years and with each flower the stem gets that little bit longer.  However, they can bend with the wind, resisting gusts of over 40 miles per hour.   The butterfly orchid can also withstand excessive watering as well as accidental drying out with some ease.

The four variant species of Psychopsis originate from the West Indies, Peru and Costa Rica.  In the wild the orchid clings to the branches and trunks of trees.  When it flowers in its natural habitat it must look like a host of butterflies have chosen to rest in the same place at the same time.

First Image Credit Flickr User Olaf