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Sunday, 23 May 2010

Stalking The Wild Slipper

Once upon a time, at the north of Strait of Melacca, there is an island called Pearl of Orient.

In the island, a hill called Penang Hill sit right at the center.

The hill is covered by thick layer of tropical rain forest. With its cooling temperature and fresh air, it has become a beloved retreat for locals and many European since the time of Francis Light.

That time, Penang Hill is famous for its botanical diversity. It attracts researchers around the world. Became a world famous pot of invaluable botanical asset.

That time, Monkey Cup and Slipper Orchid are amongst the famous and common plants of interest found abundantly in the hill.

Fast forward.
Today, while Monkey Cup survive the challenges of time, wild Slipper Orchid has become a legend in Penang Hilll.

While it is commonly cultivated in South East Asia, wild specimen in Penang hill is on the thin line of extinction. Ask all the Penangites, orchid enthusiast and researchers include, it is not surprise none of them have actually seen a wild specimen in its natural habitat of Penang Hill before.

However, In very few spots undiscovered by people, still, the legend's DNA survive.

Paphiopedilum barbatum, to be exact the scientific name. It grows in granite rock crevices containing moss and decaying leaves in shaded valleys. It demands plentiful rainfall and high humidity that ensure its roots are always moist.

Its seeds only germinate when some specific fungus is present. The hyphae of this fungus penetrate the seed and the seed digest the hyphae for nutrient. It is a vulnerable ecosystem. The extinction of paphiopedilum barbatum from 99.99% of Penang Hill has proven the case.

The wild Slipper Orchid with its stunning flowers and its rarity has make them highly attractive to orchid collectors and growers. Paphiopedilum barbatum is listed on Appendix I of CITES. Trade in wild specimen is prohibited.

Although it is now extensively cultivated in South East Asia countries like Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore, as well as in Europe. This does not ease the pressure of this striking wild Slipper Orchid, it remains highly sought after by collectors for its wild genes stock.

Collection of wild Slipper Orchid is not an issue now in Penang Hill as it is so rare that any expedition by collectors will end empty handed. However, disturbance to the unique ecosystem and lose of habitat remain a serious and real threat.


: Plantae
Phylum : Tracheophyta
Class : Liliopsida
Order : Orchidales
Family : Orchidaceae
Genus : Paphiopedilum
Size : Stem height: up to 35 cm

The scientific name of this particularly handsome orchid is very appropriate; pedilon is the Greek word for slipper and Paphos is a town in Cyprus, the favourite island of Aphrodite, the goddess of beauty . ‘Slipper' refers to one of the petals, called the lip, which forms a shoe-like structure that is deep purple at the tip, turning paler towards the base. The other petals of the flowers are greenish-white, blending into purple veins towards the edge, and the margins bear small hairs and small, blackish warts. The pointed, green, mottled leaves of Paphiopedilum barbatum measure 10 to 15 centimetres in length, and each stem bears just one or occasionally two flowers.

The colour, patterns and structure of Paphiopedilum barbatum flowers, have all evolved to attract insect pollinators. An insect, lured to the attractive flower, will be guided by the colourful markings and ridges to the shoe-like lip. The inside walls of the lip are slippery and so the only way out for the insect is via a ladder of hairs that takes the insect past the stigma where pollen is deposited.
After pollination, the petals fade, the stigma closes up, and the ovary begins to swell. The ovary gradually develops into a green pod that turns yellow as it matures. When mature, the pod bursts open to release powdery, almost microscopic seeds that are so light they can be carried on air currents for hundreds of kilometres.
Wherever the tiny seeds lands, they will only germinate if a certain fungus is present. The thread-like strands (or hyphae) that make up the fungus penetrate the orchid seed, and the seed then begins to digest the hyphae, thus gaining the nutrients required for growth.