Pleione maculata (Lindl.) Lindl. & Paxton.

The Plant

Epiphyte, pseudo-bulbs varying in shape at different stages of growth, generally cylindric to barrel shaped, its surface mottled with purplish brown, enveloped by loose brown fibers. Leaf in pairs, 6 to 15 cm long and 3 to 4 cm in width, narrowly elliptic-oblong, acute, narrowed to the petiole, base sheathed with bracts having nodular inflations. Leaf-less during flowering.

The Flower

Flowers solitary, erect, large, 5 to 6 cm across, rising from the base of the pseudo-bulb by a very short peduncle covered in a large spathaceous flower bract with broad emarginate apex, longer than the ovary. Sepals spreading, sub-equal, oblong to lanceolate, sub-acute, 7 nerved. Petals spreading, narrower than the sepals, of the same length or slightly shorter than latter, oblong, five to seven nerved. Lip broadly elliptic, three lobed, the basal part convolate round the column; the lateral lobes entire and narrower; the terminal broader, with sub-entire edges and broad apex. The disc with 5 to 7 fimbriate ridges. Column long and slightly curved, its apex winged. Pollinia elliptic.

Sepals and petals pure white, occasionally with streaks of dark brownish pink. The lip is white based with its interior marked with yellow and brownish pink streaks. The fimbriate ridges are yellow.

Pleione maculata, (Lindl), Lindl
Pleione maculata (Lindl), Lindl.

The Pursuit

A rare and threatened species of the region. Very rarely spotted in the natural habitats in the past decade. However, it is surprising to see many orchid scientists and researchers published its photographs in many articles. It amused me to know most of them had never been too long in the region. I had closely studied many photographs to find that the colouration and structure never matched the descriptions of King and Pantling. Later, I found that this species is growing in many nurseries of the region – one of the reasons of its disappearance from the natural habitats, and all those scientists had the privilege of documenting the plant and its flower from those nurseries. The species is a native to tropical forests and its translocation to higher altitude made it adopt another characteristics which was evident in all those photographs.

Hence, I decided to find it from its natural habitats itself. As it is a low altitude species and native to tropical valleys, the search was concentrated on the banks of river Teesta. However, I was not able to spot them from any of the places known to me. In the month of October, I was traveling in a service vehicle to another region in search of some species. A group of ladies were the co-passengers, returning to their homes after purchase in connection with Durga puja (a big festival of the region). As a practice, I always show my co-passengers drawings of orchids made by Pantling from my IPad. It had helped me a lot as many people had given me enough tips to find many species. I had shown the drawing of this species also. One of the ladies identified it and even narrated stories of collecting its flowers for the Durga puja (it flowers in the month of October/November, the season of Durga puja). She had explained to me about its location which is near to her maternal home. I noted down all the points for identifying the location from her talks. Next week, I started my journey to her village, where I luckily got some contacts. However, even after searching for three days we were not able to locate the tree or the plant. On the fourth day, as we were about to go to another site for search, we met the same lady in the village market. She is back in her home in connection with the Durga puja. My contacts were very well connected with her and made enquiries about the location of the tree. After getting maximum information, our small party of three went to the place she directed. All the three were climbing different trees to locate the plant. Finally, after a search of around four hours we found a small patch of plants, numbering 14, in full bloom. It was such an exciting moment to all of us. I was so lucky when the whole village was celebrating the Durga puja with local brew and drinks, my loyal contacts were happy to be with me in locating the plant. If we had waited for all the celebrations to be over, we would have found the flowers in a withered state only. With the help of those very kind friends I was able to produce this wonderful photograph with all the characteristics described by King and Pantling.

Later on, last year, I found one more habitat of this rare plant.

Pleione hookeriana (Lindl.) Rollisson.

The Plant

Epiphyte, with small oval shaped pseudo bulbs covered with a few lax sheaths. Leaf solitary, 3 to 5 cm long and 1 to 1.5 cm cm in width, proceeding from the base of the adult pseudo-bulb, narrowly elliptic, acute, tapering towards the petiole. Leafy during flowering. Peduncle longer than the leaves, enclosed in tubular imbricate sheaths.

The Flower

Flowers solitary, 2 to 3 cm across, floral bract about as long as the stalked ovary, arising from the apex of the pseudo-bulb and protruding through the petiole of the leaf. Sepals spreading, sub-equal in length, elliptic to oblong, the dorsal slightly narrowed than the lateral, five nerved. Petals spreading, narrower and longer than the petals, obtuse, 5 to 7 nerved. Lip sub-reniform, cordate at base, broader in its posterior half, minutely erose in its anterior portion, apex retuse, disc with 7 ciliate ridges from the base to apex. Column long and curved, broadly winged. Pollinia obliquely elliptic.

Sepals and petals are of various shades of pale pink to rose, slightly darkening towards the margins. Lip almost white with a few reddish brown markings on its disc. The ciliate ridges are bright yellow.

Pleione hookeriana, Lindl
Pleione hookeriana Lindl.

 The Pursuit

A rather common species of the high altitude hills. I had spotted this species from several hilly areas of the region during my work. In the pre-monsoon days this species creates an interesting view, with hundreds of flowers fully covering many tree trunks. Before my research on orchids of Sikkim-Himalayas, I had noticed this species in full bloom during one of my trips to North Sikkim. The observation of the species in flower from a very high altitude caught our attention and we did some photo shoots. On our way back me and my fellow class mates had a long conversation about the species. Later on, I started my research on orchids and became an almost permanent resident of the region. During its flowering season, I was working from Lachen in North Sikkim and decided to study and document the species from those same trees.

The trees are on the right side of a sharp curve on an ascending road (most of the roads of North Sikkim are uphill only!!!). The sharp curve coupled with the ascending nature of the road makes all vehicles slow down there. Thus the flowers on those trees had bought the attention of all passing by. Even the taxi operators got a scheduled stop there for the tourists to have photo shoots.

I visited the place every time when I went up the road. Finally, the flowers started opening up. My visits turned regular and saw more and more flowers in bloom. My intention was to get maximum blooming flowers in one frame. Finally, I decided the shoot for the next day and also wanted to document the top most growing plant in bloom. The reason was that, this is the highest growing epiphytic orchid of the region at 11,800 ft MSL. That means the top most flower on those trees will be the record bearer for the highest growing epiphytic orchid of the region!!!. Our journey uphill from Lachen was systematically planned with ladder, hooks, ropes, cardboards etc. While in the spot only we realized the fact that the ladder width is around half the diameter of the tree, hence it is difficult for it to hold on to the tree. My driver came up with some ideas to fix the ladder rigidly with some iron wires he found nearby. I and my assistant were right up the tree taking much caution not to destroy any plants on the trunk and branches. I selected the topmost flower, luckily it was a fresh flower too. Shooting was so difficult due to heavy winds. The flower was shivering in the wind, which makes sharp photos impossible. My assistant was kind enough to hold many hardboards on almost all sides to prevent wind and made me produce this wonderful photograph of the species, the highest blooming epiphytic orchid of the region!!!

Pleione praecox (Sm.) D.Don.

The Plant

Mostly epiphytic, seen also growing on rocks and even as terrestrial. Pseudo-bulbs vary in shape from cylindric to barrel, surface mottled with brown and imperfectly sheathed with fibers. Leaves in pairs, 6 to 14 cm long and 2 to 4 cm in width, membranous, elliptic to oblong, many-nerved, narrowed at the base to the petiole. Leaf less during flowering. Peduncle from the base of the pseudo bulb. Flowers solitary, mostly pendulous, large, 4 to 6 cm across. Floral bract obovoid, obtuse, as long as the stalked ovary. Sepals spreading, sub-equal and lanceolate. Petals spreading, much narrower than the sepals. Lip ovate to orbicular, side lobes absent, the basal convolate round the column, the anterior concave, the mouth wide open with irregular lobulate edges, the apex slightly bifid. The disc with three laciniate lamellae. Column very long, with a short sac at the base. Pollinia clavate.

The Flower

Sepals, petals and lip are of various shades of rose to pink, sometimes darker or lighter. The disc of the lip got many dull yellow to brown spots, the lamellae is of a bright yellow shade. However, several colour forms of this species are spotted on various locations like pure white form, with only the lip with white etc.

Pleione praecox, (Sm) D. Don
Pleione praecox (Sm) D. Don.

The Pursuit

This species is locally common in the region. It blooms in plenty in its natural habitats between September and November. As it blooms after shedding its leaves, the species turns the whole trunk on which it is growing into a shade of pink. The flowers show enough colour variations from dark pink to pale pink and sometimes pure white. My intention was to find the flower with the exact descriptions made by Sir George King and Robert Pantling in their monumental work a century ago. This made the task somewhat difficult. I studied and observed several hundred specimens from various locations and host trees for several days. Finally, zeroed on a particular tree with hundreds of flowers. The tree was of 70 to 80 ft in height with with around 8 ft diameter trunk and huge branches. The flowers which I wanted to document were at a height of around 18 ft from the ground on the main trunk. In the absence of a ladder, I always uses a rope circled around the trunk to climb trees. With this tree that was impossible, as it will destroy many flowers on its trunk. The only option was to climb up another tree near to it and move across its branches to the top of this tree and winch down using a long rope. The cold winds and leafy moss covered branches will not make such movements and manoeuvring easy at staggering heights in deep forests. Somehow, I managed it with the help of my assistant and hung down from the branch with the help of a rope at 20 feet high from the ground and made this wonderful photograph of its flowers – with all the characteristics matching the text of King and Pantling.