Tuesday, January 15, 2013

The flowers of the Earl Stanhope

Species name: Stanhopea sp.

Common name: Stan orchid

Location: UWO Greenhouse

All of the plants in a greenhouse typically are labelled with species name, family that the plant belongs to, and the common name (sometimes this is omitted). In greenhouses where plants are actively being propagated, sometimes all of the pots are put together that are the same species, and the "master plant," or the mature plant from which all the propagules were generated, is the only one that's labelled. Normally this doesn't pose a problem...until species are so similar they're indistinguishable. The hanging pot this plant was in wasn't labelled, but one a little further down was (but that one didn't have flowers). After looking up that species online, the flowers are completely different between the pot that had the label and the one that had the flowers, leading me to believe the species is different. On the bright side, it's in the right genus!

Most of the 60 (or so) species of Stan orchids are native to Central and South America, and a good number of them are at risk or threatened due to their very narrow native ranges, and the deforestation occurring through much of Central and South America. Some of them, like Stanhopea wardii, are still very common and are also popular ornamental species (that come in multiple varieties with different coloured or patterned flowers). Many of the species with this genus don't exactly smell pleasant, but they don't smell gross, either. A great deal of Stan orchids produce an odor to attract very specific pollinators. The odor produced mimics the sex pheromones of the insects, so instead of coming to the flower thinking there is nectar to drink they come to try to copulate with it. It might be mean of the flower to coerce an insect into thinking it's a member of the same species, but effective for the flower in pollination. A neat mechanism, and one that is repeated across many orchid species (and other flowering species of plants in general).

The Stanhopea genus is named after the first Earl Stanhope (James), the principal minister to King George I in England. The title of Lord Stanhope is passed down through the first-born son. Many of Lord Stanhope's children are also prominent figures in history (many of whom were politicians, but one was very important during the French Revolution), so having a plant named after all of them is probably fitting.