Although we have left Florida and have been battered by high winds, rain and stormy skies on the coast of Georgia, I am not yet ready to leave some of those memories behind.
This is the weirdly elegant nun’s cap orchid, Phaius tankervilliae, a terrestrial orchid that comes to us from the other side of the world (China, Japan, Malaysia, Indonesia, India, New Guinea and Australia). It can also be found in the swampy grasslands or forests of Hawaii and is now endangered due to habitat loss and illegal collection by plant hunters!
Like so many exotic orchids that were ‘found’ and kidnapped by European plant hunters, this genus was brought to England from the Far East around 1778. It was transported to the West under the auspices of the renowned and very wealthy English physician and botanist, John Fothergill, but it was the East India company chaplain/plant hunter, Swede Pehr Osbeck (a disciple of Carl Linnaeus himself), who handed this striking orchid to Fothergill after he returned. Osbeck brought many species of plants back from the Far East and this particular orchid was known in China as the ‘Crane’s head orchid’. According to Jane Kilpatrick in her book, Gifts from the Gardens of China, Fothergill didn’t keep it but sent it along (in its original black Chinese pot) to his niece, Sarah Hird, in Yorkshire where it flowered for the first time in Britain in May 1778.
Kilpatrick says that perhaps unfairly this species of orchid was named by the larger than life contemporary English plant hunter, Joseph Banks, in honour of the Countess Emma Tankerville, who was an orchid aficionado and powerhouse plant collector of the same era.
I say, let’s ask for a name change: Phaius hirdii! It’s only fair…