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Donut in the Northern Gloom (Wayne Ferrebee, 2015, Color Pencil and Ink)

Donut in the Northern Gloom (Wayne Ferrebee, 2015, Color Pencil and Ink)

As I promised, here are some sketches from my little book which I carry around with me and draw in.  The first one, above, is another one of my enigmatic donuts.  This one seems to exist in the gloomy darkness of evening.  A fire burns on the horizon as a grub-man calls out to a woman with a scientific apparatus.  The reindeer seems largely unconcerned, by these human doings.  In the picture immediately below, an orchid-like flower blooms by some industrial docks. Inside the pedals it offers rows of cryptic symbols to the viewer.

Fragmipedium (Wayne Ferrebee, 2015, color pencil and ink)

Fragmipedium (Wayne Ferrebee, 2015, color pencil and ink)

Here is a quick sketch of Manhattan’s San Gennaro festival.  I walked to the corner of the street to draw the lights, wile my roommate got her fortune read by a jocular and likable (yet ingeniously avaricious) fortune teller located in an alcove just to the right of the composition!

San Gennaro in Little Italy (Wayne Ferrebee, 2015, color pencil and ink)

San Gennaro in Little Italy (Wayne Ferrebee, 2015, color pencil and ink)

I sketched a cornucopia with some invertebrates while I was waiting in line at the post office (there was only one clerk who had to deal with a vast line of Wall Street characters sending elaborate registered packages around the world). It was not an ordeal for me–I had my sketch book, and was getting paid to wait in line!  The guy beside me stopped playing with his infernal phone-thingy to watch me draw.  Note the multiple mollusks which flourish in the painting.  I think the ammonite has real personality

Cornu, cornus (Wayne Ferrebee, 2015, color pencil and ink)

Cornu, cornus (Wayne Ferrebee, 2015, color pencil and ink)

Last is a seasonal composition which I really like (maybe because I used my new brown pen, which thought I had lost).  A lovable land whale cavorts among autumn plants as monstrous invaders monopolize a cemetery.  For some unknowable reason there is also a bottle gourd.  The ghosts and bats are part of the October theme.  As ever I appreciate your comments!  Also I still have have some sketches (and general observations) from my weekend trip to Kingston, New York.

Autumn Land Whale and Miscellaneous Others (Wayne Ferrebee, 2015, color pencil and ink)

Autumn Land Whale and Miscellaneous Others (Wayne Ferrebee, 2015, color pencil and ink)

free-photo-purple-orchid-523No doubt you have noticed how different clothing stores have the same color palette for their wares.  If you walk from Banana Republic to Uniqlo to Armani Exchange, you will see remarkably different garments at wildly different prices…and yet the colors are all the same (and the opposing colors suit each other beautifully).  The effect even stretches to kitchen and home goods stores: so if you are particularly obsessed you can probably match your underwear, your blender, and your divan—as long as you buy them in the same year (and also assuming you buy divans). The reason for this phenomenon is that every year the mughals of fashion, trendiness, and color itself get together and proclaim a color palette for the year.

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In practice, international corporations tend to defer to Pantone, a company based in New Jersey for this palette.  Every year Pantone (allegedly) convenes a secret quorum of fashionistas, artists, Illuminati, scientists, sorcerers, and what not in an unknown European capital to choose the color which most accurately expresses the zeitgeist of all human endeavor for a year. [When I was imprisoned in the legal industry, a strange coworker who was really “in the scene” during the eighties confided that what all this really means is that a gay man with a sharp eye chooses the palette, Pantone reviews it, and everyone else gets told what colors to use.  This sounds quite plausible, but I have no way of verifying the truth of the allegation.  Pantone has grown much savvier at marketing nonsense since the eighties…as indeed has everyone except for me, alas].

decorate-your-home-with-pantones-radiant-orchid

Anyway, the official color of the year of 2014 is [insert royal fanfare with horns] “Radiant Orchid” an extremely pretty mid-tone purple/lavender.  To celebrate, I have illustrated this article with radiant orchid pictures (at least to such an extent my computer’s ever changing screen and my own eyes can replicate the hue).  Undoubtedly the other colors you see at shops this year will all perfectly match radiant orchid. Pantone announces the color of the year for free, but if you would like to see the associated palette you will have to order the proprietary information from Pantone View.

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As you can probably tell from the tone of this post, I feel that “the color of the year” is a bit silly (not radiant orchid, which I find very fetching, but the concept itself), yet I do like the idea of a unified palette and I like the fact that favorite colors change with the era in accordance to a larger consensus of human taste.   Perhaps someday we will all smile with bittersweet nostalgia as we think back on 2014 with its mild lavender in the same way that my parents talk about mustard and avocado or my grandparents talk about baby blue.  In the meantime, if purple is your thing you should feel happy, and if not you should start pulling strings right now to influence the mystery color of 2015.

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Orchis italica

Orchis italica

Today we showcase a humorous-looking orchid–Orchis italica, which (for self-evident reasons) is also known as the naked man orchid, the Italian orchid, or the naked fairy orchid. The orchid grows in the Mediterranean along the coast of Israel, Turkey, Greece, Italy, France, and Spain.  Sometimes it is even found as far west as Portugal.  The plant favors poor soil and mixed shade.  In the summer it produces a remarkable array of blooms which resemble tiny nude lavender men wearing crazy turban-crowns.

Orchis Italica (photo by Ana Retamaro)

Orchis Italica (photo by Ana Retamaro)

During the middle ages, a certain school of natural-history held that the creator had put clues about the pharmacological utility of flora in the very shape of the plants themselves.  This so-called “doctrine of signatures” asserted that plants which looked like the liver were good for the liver and flowers that resembled the skin were good for the skin.   Orchis italica was sought out and crushed down as a virility aid.  The naked fairy orchid was not alone in becoming a part of such decoctions:  other Mediterranean orchids (like Orchis mascula) were also dug up.  The tubers of these plants (which tend to come in pairs and also resemble male anatomy) were crushed into a heavy flour which was used to make salep or salop–a dense sugary beverage which had extensive popularity in Europe and the Ottoman world during the 18th and 19th centuries.  It was sold in coffee houses everywhere and is still sold in Turkey.

Orchis mascula

Orchis mascula

An Orchid Bee in Nicaragua (from whatsthatbug.com)

An Orchid Bee in Nicaragua (from whatsthatbug.com)

Here in New York the weather outside is February gray.  The buildings are gray.  The sky is gray.  The trees are gray.  The people are dressed in gray and black.  Fortunately we can beguile away this monochromatic tedium by contemplating the Euglossini, also known as the orchid bees!

Despite their Latin name, the Euglossini are not uniformly eusocial.  This means that most species of orchid bees live solitary lives (in marked contrast to honeybees–which live in vast hives more ordered than the strictest totalitarian state).  The orchid bees live in Central and South America, apart from one species which ranges into North America.  They are notable for their brilliant iridescent blue and green coloring.  The females build nests out of mud and resin.

Museum specimens of orchid bees

Museum specimens of orchid bees

The most remarkable aspect of Euglossini behavior is the male bee’s obsession which the aromatic compounds produced by various tropical orchids.  Male orchid bees have a rarified ability to sense these fragrances even in small quantities (like many heady floral/fruit scents the chemicals produced by the orchids are usually complex esters).  The bees harvest the molecules with front legs specially modified to resemble little brushes (and in doing so they generally pollinate the orchids, which are wholly dependent on the bees).  Astonishingly, the male bees store the chemicals in a cavity on their back leg which is sealed off and protected by waxy hairs.

English: An orchid bee, Euglossa viridissima sleeping on a leaf. Miramar Florida (by Efram Goldberg)

English: An orchid bee, Euglossa viridissima sleeping on a leaf. Miramar Florida (by Efram Goldberg)

The male bees appear to use these compounds when trying to attract a mate but no female attraction to the odors has been proved.  On the other hand, many Stanhopeinae and Catasetinae orchids are absolutely dependent on the male bees to reproduce.  Different species of these orchids rely on specific species of orchid bees to successfully pollinate far-away partners in the rainforest.  Charles Darwin wrote about this pollination system after observing it in the wild and later referred to the highly specialized orchids as proof of the ways in which species adapt to their environments.

Euglossa mixta (from The University of Arizona's Center for Insect Science Website)

Euglossa mixta (from The University of Arizona’s Center for Insect Science Website)

Vanilla is easily the most popular flavoring on the market.  Not only does vanilla outsell all other ice cream flavors, it is the principle flavor in innumerable cakes, cookies, candies, fillings, icings, and drinks. It is also the dominant scent in many perfumes, cosmetics, and scent-based products. Vanilla (and fake vanilla) is so popular that the word has acquired a second definition as an adjective meaning “commonplace, boring, or lacking any special features.”  The second definition seems tremendously incongruous with vanilla’s fundamental nature.  True vanilla extract is derived from a beautiful and exotic tropical orchid.  For a long time it was one of the rarest and most precious ingredients available.  The plant’s cultivation history involves subjugation, genocide, stingless bees, slaves, and the fate of nations.  Many many things in this life are dull and unexciting but certainly not vanilla.

Vanilla planifolia, the Flat-leaved Vanilla Orchid

Vanilla is derived from tropical orchids of the genus Vanilla.  These plants are epiphytic vines which climb trees or other similar structures. Vanilla vines produce white, yellow and green flowers which look like narrow cattleyas.   Although the Vanilla genus consists of more than 110 species of plant, almost all vanilla extract comes from one Mexican species, Vanilla  planifolia–the flat leafed vanilla–or from cultivars derived from V. planifolia.  According to Orchid Flower HQ, “The name vanilla comes from the Spanish word vainilla, a diminutive form of the word vaina which means sheath. The word vaina is in turn derived from the Latin word vagina, which means ‘sheath’ or ‘scabbard’.”  As you might imagine from such an etymology, the long narrow annealed lips of a vanilla flower do indeed resemble a sheath.

Hmm...

Once they are fertilized, vanilla flowers produce fruits in the form of long black pods.  Totonac people—pre-Colombian Mesoamericans who were indigenous to mountainous regions along the eastern coast of Mexico—were the first people to realize the food potential of these pods.  Although initially inedible, the pods produce the sweet heady smell and taste of vanilla when sun-ripened for several weeks.   The Totonacs had a myth that the vanilla flower originated when Xanat, a princess and priestess to the goddess of the crops, eloped into the jungle with a handsome lover whom she was forbidden to marry. When the pair were discovered hiding in the forest, they were beheaded.  Where the lovers’ blood mingled on the jungle floor, the first vanilla vine first sprouted.

Vanilla Pods

The Totonac people did not get to enjoy their vanilla unmolested for very long.  From the mid 15th century up until the Spanish conquest, the Aztecs subjugated the Totonacs and forced them to pay stiff tributes–which included vanilla pods. Not only did the Aztecs use vanilla for medicine and as an aphrodisiac, they added it to their sacred drink xocolatl—a bitter beverage made of cacao which they had learned about from the Mayans.  When Cortés marched to conquer the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlán, he met the Totonacs along the way and they joined the conquistador as allies. Totonac support was instrumental to Cortés’ conquest of the Aztecs. It was Cortés himself who introduced vanilla to the courts of Europe.

Hernán Cortés, food adventurer

Vanilla was initially used only as a chocolate additive in Europe, but it soon became popular as a pricey stand-alone ingredient.  Like the Aztecs, jaded European aristocrats regarded it as an aphrodisiac and a sensual aid.  It was also found to be perfect for baking and producing confections. Colonial powers rushed to plant the vine in Africa, Polynesia, Madagascar, and other suitable climates, but there was a problem: although the vines flourished, there were no pods.   It was not until 1836, that Charles Morren, a Belgian horticulturist unlocked vanilla’s secret.  The vanilla flower (Vanilla  planifolia) can not be pollinated by any insect other than the stingless Melipone bee.

Melipona subnitida--the Stingless Melipone Bee, the only natural pollinator of flat leafed vanilla flowers

Unfortunately the method of artificial pollination devised by Morren proved too expensive and difficult to be commercially viable. It was only when Edmond Albius, an orphaned slave sent to serve a horticulturist on the island of Reunion,  discovered a quick easy method to pollinate vanilla by hand that vanilla plantations became viable beyond Mexico. When slavery was abolished in the French colonies, Albius was freed, but he did not see any recompense for his discovery.  He ended up imprisoned for jewelry theft and died in poverty.

Portrait of Edmond Albius, circa 1863 (Antoine Roussin / Publisher )

Fortunately Albius’ discovery made plentiful inexpensive vanilla internationally available.  The flavoring rose to dominance because it is almost universally pleasing to humans (although vanillin acts as a trigger for a small minority of migraine sufferers). During the twentieth century, organic chemists discovered how to synthesize vanillin (a phenolic aldehyde predominant in vanilla extract) from wood pulp bi-products.  Compared to natural vanilla extract (a mixture of several hundred different compounds) it tastest quite vile:  anyone who has compared real vanilla extract with synthetic vanillin could easily expound on the superiority of the former.  Real vanilla has a taste of orchids, Central-American jungles, and divinely transfigured princess  which synthetic compounds can never capture.

And that is why home-made cookies are so much better.

Pursuant to yesterday’s post about the many-eyed giant Argus, here are some animals which have “argus” in their names (I have counted both common names and proper binomial scientific names).  What a magnificent gallery of variegated creatures!  I guess biologists and taxonomists also find the story of argus compelling (or maybe they get tired of describing lovely stippled and variegated creatures with the pedestrian word “spotted”).
Bodhadschia argus is a sea cucumber. When threatened or irritated it ejects sticky toxic threads called Cuvierian tubules from…the rear orifice of its digestive system.

Caribbean Spiny Lobster (Panulirus argus)

The chocolate argus (Junonia hedonia) a butterfly of Southeast Asia, Indonesia, and Australia.

The Argus moray (Muraena argus) is apparently covered with white spots, but this charismatic facial portrait by Scott McGee was the best I could find.

A handsome Argus monitor (Varanus panoptes). It looks like he is ready for bathtime!

The Northern Snakehead (Channa argus) aka "the Frankenfish" is a vicious and succesful fish from China, Siberia, and the Koreas. I should probably feature it as an invasive animal which is "on-the-make" around the world.

I mentioned the great argus (Argusianus argus) yesterday. Here a female bird checks out a male's display.

Cyprae argus is a beautiful member of the cowry family from the waters of southeast Africa.The Blue-spotted Grouper (Cephalopholis argus) is a splendid lurking fish from coral reefs of the Indo-Pacific.

The spotted scat (Scatophagus argus) is a pugnacious little fish from brackish waters of Japan, New Guinea and Southeastern Australia. Don't pet them! Those spines are toxic!

Paphiopedilum argus is a lovely lady-slipper orchid from high limestone ridges of the Philippines.

The Brown argus butterfly (Aricia agestis) is gradually moving its habitat northwards in Great Britain.

The list keeps going!  There are too many arguses in nature.  I’m going to call it quits and enjoy my weekend….

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