Hengduan Mountains Biotechnology, a China based orchid plant nursery

With their home-base in the capitol city of Chengdu, Sichuan, Wenqing and Holger Perner own and operate Hengduan Mountains Biotechnology, LTD. – a real boon to those interested in the native orchids of China and southern Asia. Currently, no other private company can offer what Hengduan Mountains Biotechnology does.

They sell (with proper documentation) a wide array of orchids from China including many Paphiopedilum and Cypripedium species. They also lead botanical tours into the wilds of China featuring incredible landscapes, a dizzying array of native plants with particular focus on orchids, delicious local cuisine, and of course the cultures of the people who live in these far flung places. And that’s just for starters, so why don’t we have a closer look at this truly unique company.

Huanglong National Park
Huanglong National Park in northern Sichuan is home not only to thousands of orchids, but its travertine limestone pools and waterfalls are beautiful beyond imagination. This amazing place was the first major stop on a botanical tour I took in June 2013 hosted by Holger and Wenqing Perner.

Dr. Holger Perner is a world known German botanist and orchid specialist, and has worked at Huanglong National Park in northern Sichuan as senior consultant since September 2001. Wenqing, his wife, an accomplished businesswoman and linguist, is fully fluent in English, Japanese, German, and of course her native language, Chinese. They met in Sichuan in 1997 on a botanical tour, were married a year later, and moved to Sichuan (Wenqing’s homeland) full time in 2001. They have two lovely daughters, Stefanie and Isabell.

Since 1999 Wenqing and Holger have been leading botanical tours to see western China’s rare plant flora. In 2010 these tours were extended to the subtropical and tropical mountains of southern China where a number of Paphiopedilum species can be seen. In May of the same year they finally got the go ahead to export CITES protected orchids (both Appendix II and Appendix I) out of China, making it possible for people to legally possess such species as Paphiopedilum hangianum and P. tranlienianum (both Appendix I) for the first time outside of their native lands. Wenqing and Holger also travel extensively throughout the world attending orchid shows, and giving talks to local orchid societies.

I have had the great fortune of personally knowing both of them for some years now. In the summer of 2013 I took it a step further by attending one of their botanical tours to northern Sichuan where I got to know them even better. The experience was beyond my expectations. We were treated to 10 eye popping days in the Min Mountains of Aba Tibetan Qiang Autonomous Prefecture, followed by a visit to their nursery on the outskirts of Chengdu and to the ancient town of Huanglong Xi on the last day.

Crossing a stream in the Hengduan Mountains
The Hengduan Mountains are home to a dizzying array of plant species as well as endangered wildlife, such as the giant panda bear. Here tour members are crossing a mountain torrent in the scenic Danyun Gorge.

From June 20th-30th myself and 11 other plant enthusiasts from around the world were escorted around northern Sichuan by Holger and Wenqing personally. A typical day was spent traveling by tour bus to highly varied habitats in the deep valleys that are made by the massive northern Hengduan Mountain Range on the very eves of the immense Tibetan Plateau. We stopped whenever something of interest was seen – everybody would then file off the bus and the cameras would come out. In addition to these frequent stops, we visited no less than six botanical Edens on the tour, spending an entire day at each of the most choice places.
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A blue orchid flower from Brazil, “Laelia” purpurata, “the witch’s jewel”

About six years ago I was able to acquire a small back-bulb division of Laelia purpurata v. werkhauseri, a “blue flowered” orchid of the Brazilian coast. I didn’t know at the time the history of this plant, nor much else about this species in general since it was an unforeseen gift from a friend. Nor did I realize this species was soon to be placed into the genus Sophronitis (known for their small, round, and red flowers), only to be transferred into Cattleya a year later. All I knew was that I had a “blue orchid” plant that looked like a big Cattleya. By the time I had it up to flowering size, all the name transformations were already said and done.

First, a little bit about this species. It was described in 1852 by Lindley and placed into the Central American genus Laelia based on its 8 pollinia (masses of organized pollen grains) instead of the usual 4 found in Cattleya, a trait of all the large flowered Brazilian Laelia species. Because of their similarity to Cattleya (and dissimilarity to other Laelia) they became known as “Cattleyode” Laelia or the Cattleya-like Brazilian Laelias.

Laelia purpurata werkhauseri
The flower of Cattleya (“Laelia”) purpurata v. werkhauseri is famous for its indigo flushed and veined lip.

Recent DNA research has proven that they are in fact quite distinct from other Laelia in the Americas, and are in fact simply large flowered Cattleya. The first name change for this group happened in 2008 from Laelia to Sophronitis until that genus, lock stock and barrel, was transferred into Cattleya a year later. So, though this plant is still mostly known by growers as Laelia purpurata (and some doggedly defend that position), it now is officially in the the genus Cattleya.

If that weren’t enough story telling for you, there is an even more interesting back story to v. werkhauseri. Back in 1904 this blue flowered form was found in the state of Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil by Karl Werkhauser. He found two clones labeled I and II. The first was a not so great flower but the second was wonderful, so he called it ‘Superba’. Anyway, plants were never sold or given to anyone except at his death in 1914 – his son got the poor flowered plant and his daughter the good one. The son apparently got off his division quickly, but the daughter kept the other under lock and key for another 40 years! After some crazy negotiations with local orchid lovers she finally sold the plant for serious money. Apparently all the plants we know as v. werkhauseri today are descended from that original 5 bulb division (she kept many more for herself). Because of her selfish attitude this form got the nickname, “The Witch’s Jewel”.

Laelia purpurata growth habit
Cattleya purpurata has a growth form typical of single leaf (unifoliate) Cattleya species and can grow very large, up to 60 cm in total length.

In nature this species is found in the coastal forests of southern Brazil in the states of São Paulo, Santa Catarina, and Rio Grande do Sul. It’s distribution is somewhat disjunct starting in the north between Rio de Janeiro and Porto Novo, picking up again around Praia Grande south to Cananéia (São Paulo State), skipping Paraná State, and starting up again south of Joinville (Santa Catarina State) to the vicinity of Tramandai (Rio Grande do Sul State).

It is said to grow on rocky shores close to the ocean, especially on big fig trees, in nearly full sun conditions. These coastal rain forests have undergone vast changes since people have been living in them for a long time. It is said that Ficus trees are favored by some native people, not only for their fruits, but for cultural reasons, and are left uncut. For this reason, many large fig trees grow to massive size, and it is here that the orchids find a home.
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A dwarf white orchid flower from Central America, Epidendrum trialatum

A fascinating and lovely little orchid from Central America is the little known species Epidendrum trialatum. This species is interesting in that it possesses pure white crystalline flowers – an oddity for a genus that boasts blossoms of almost any color of the rainbow except pure white. It belongs to the group of Epidendrums known as reed stem orchids since the elongated cane or pseudobulb and alternating leaves looks something like a reed.

This is an epiphytic, dwarf evergreen orchid of warm tropical rain forests. It is a clump forming species with cane-like pseudobulbs ranging from 6-20 cm long at flowering size, and each holding between 3-5 leaves. These canes are somewhat zig-zag in shape, and are segmented with each bearing a sheath, short petiole, and one succulent leaf. The leaves are simple, elongate, blunt tipped, with a distinct midrib, each 3-10 cm long and 0.6-1.5 cm wide. They are a pleasant light apple green, and somewhat shiny. The roots are numerous, white, wiry, and branch less. Both canes and roots are borne off short, stout, and highly branched rhizomes.

Epidendrum trialatum plant
Epidendrum trialatum is a clumping species that looks like an alba flowered form of E. difforme.

The flowers of E. trialatum are its most startling feature. They are produced at the terminus of each cane only, borne singly or at most four (perhaps 5?) in number in a loose clump. The overall flower shape is typical for the genus, with a relatively large, broad lip that is bilobed, three sepals all similar in size and shape, and two very narrow, wire-like petals. Each flower is approximately 3 cm long vertically, and 2 cm across horizontally. The flowers are a pure, startlingly white color throughout. They are pungently sweet, with a hint of spice, and give off most of their fragrance at night.

This is an orchid of warm rain forests and deciduous forests on the Pacific side of Panama at altitudes between 500-1000 meters, as well as the Cordillera de Tilarán in Costa Rica. I can find no other reliable reports of it growing in other parts of Central or South America.

Epidendrum trialatum flower
Epidendrum trialatum has pristine white flowers, unusual for an Epidendrum.

This dwarf orchid is remarkably similar looking to Epidendrum difforme, a species that was once considered a highly variable plant found throughout tropical America. In the 1980s and 1990s many of these forms (20 or more!) were partitioned out as separate entities, notably by Robert L. Dressler and Eric Hágsater, and now comprise a group known as the “Epidendrum difforme complex”. In fact it was Hágsater who described E. trialatum in 1984 as a new species from Panama. One of the distinguishing characteristics of this species is the hood that covers the column of the flower – it is frilled at the end, and its lateral lobes as well are serrated. See this link to view Kew’s specimen details on this species.
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A rare cane orchid from Myanmar and western Thailand: Thunia bensoniae

The mountains of western Thailand and Myanmar are home to a long described, yet rare species of cane orchid, Thunia bensoniae. This genus, totally confided to southeast Asia, has only 6 known species and a handful of hybrids. These orchids have a bamboo-like look about them, and are deciduous in the winter months. T. bensoniae is one of the more showy species, sporting large Cattleya-like purple/pink flowers.

Thunia bensoniae flower
The flower of Thunia bensoniae is quite lovely and large, yet rarely does it present itself in a front facing position such as this staked plant.

In late winter or early spring new growths sprout from the base of completely leafless, sheath covered canes. These canes are dark brown and life-less looking. Their base is slightly bulbous and by winter’s end the previous season’s roots are all dead. The curious new growths start as bunches of short leafy bracts and are a light blue green color. As the season progresses, they expand to form an elongated cane-shaped growth with 10 or more lanceolate, yet broad leaves, soft to the touch. The newly formed cane within remains relatively soft as well until full maturity in the fall at which point it hardens off, becoming tough and fibrous.

At the end of their growing cycle buds form at the terminus of the cane. Each cane can sport up to 5 large flowers. The flowers are very showy, yet hang every which way, especially downward. The word “floppy” comes to mind. Not surprisingly, they are best viewed from below. They give off what might be termed an acrid odor – thankfully it is not very strong.

Each flower has the classic orchid blossom shape, as in the genus Cattleya, and is purple/pink. The lip is tubular, with a broad trumpet shape and is lightly frilled with many striations on its inner surface. The inner surface is also covered in yellow-orange tufts and ridges (lamellae) – an aid to ensure pollination. The remaining flower segments are very similar in shape and length and usually are a much paler color than the lip itself, but can be edged in dark purple/pink. In nature they are said to flower in early summer, however, at my house they start growth later than in their native homes and so don’t flower until mid summer.

By late fall the leaves begin to die back. This is not necessarily a function of colder weather, but rather is a natural cycle of their growth. By Christmas time they are fully deciduous and remain dormant for 3 or more months.

Thunia bensoniae new growths
The chubby new growths of Thunia bensoniae initiate at the slightly bulbous base of last years cane.

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Life on the end of a twig, two miniature orchids from southern Japan

In the local mountains of Fukuoka Prefecture, Kyushu, Japan, there exists two miniature orchid plants that literally spend their lives hanging off the the edge of branches or even twigs of trees – most notably Japanese plum yew, Cephalotaxus harringtonia, Japanese cedar, Cryptomeria japonica. and to a lesser extent, hinoki cypress, Chamaecyparis obtusa.  Mind you, these trees grow on exposed ridge lines that commonly experience typhoons (the Eastern equivalent of hurricanes) and near constant winds off the sea.  Such a life is precarious to say the least, yet they manage to thrive.  Both are closely related, but in different genera.

Thrixspermum japonicum plant
Thrixspermum japonicum is always found dangling from twigs of conifer trees. This one is in seed.

Thrixspermum japonicum is a miniature evergreen epiphytic orchid.  The plant grows from one growing point (monopodial growth form) and has a trailing stem.  Offshoots can grow off this stem, sometimes forming small clumps of pendulous growths.  The entire plant is small with each growth being  3-10 cm in length, occasionally longer in really large specimens.  The thin leaves are usually a deep purplish green, between 1-3.5 cm long and 0.5-1 cm wide.  The light grey-green roots mostly grow off the leafless end of the stem and are 4-9 mm long and about 1 mm wide.  The flower buds begin to form in late summer in small clusters, and stay in stasis throughout the winter months until opening in mid spring.

The flowers hang in clusters of 3-8, hanging neatly arrayed with all the flowers facing the same way.  Each flower is tiny, not much more than 1 cm across and is a lovely creamy yellow.  The flower is cupped forward, but mostly open, however the dorsal sepal stays bent forward over the lip. The sepals and petals are pure creamy yellow.   The lip is heavily marked with reddish brown and is bulbous at its base with two flaring up swept “wings” at its sides.  The seed pods are elongate and thin;  2-2.5 cm long and about 3 mm wide.  Plants typically form small, loose colonies.

Thrixspermum japonicum flowers upclose
The flowers of T. japonicum are lovely when viewed up close.

This species is locally abundant in wet forests growing on the twigs and small branches of conifer trees, especially Japanese cedar, Cryptomeria japonica, and Japanese plum yew, Cephalotaxus harringtonia.  White it is also reported to grow on the trunks of evergreen broad leafed trees such as the Camphor tree, Cinnamomum camphora, I have not seen that locally.  Plants tend to grow at fairly high elevations, from 400 m to 1000 m.  They have been collected from Iwate Prefecture in the north of Honshu and all the way southward to Kyushu, Shikoku, and Yaku Island off the Kyushu’s southern coast.

This was the first epiphytic Japanese orchid I ever saw in the wild.  I was a bit surprised to find it, especially where I found it.  It was growing on the very outermost branches of a Cephalotaxus tree high up a mountain where winters get quite cold.  Since then I’ve seen many more, with the vast bulk of these being on the forest floor attached to fallen twigs and branches.  If this orchid had a job description it would read, “dangling precariously on small twigs high up in trees and falling to the ground” – and that is about the truth!  I am constantly finding plants on the ground during my outings into the mountains.  Whenever I see a recently fallen cedar branch, I always give it a close look.
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