Lord Rothschild and Saint Swithin

Paph_rothschildianum1
Mature Paphiopedilum rothschildianum can have 4-6 flowers on an inflorescence, so this plant with three flowers is still just a baby.

With its large, elegant flowers on an upright inflorescence Paphiopedilum rothschildianum is one of the most magnificent slipper orchid species, and it caused a sensation when introduced into cultivation in 1887. At first, its habitat was falsely said to be in New Guinea, probably to throw competing plant collectors off the trail, but although its true origin in Borneo was correctly reported in 1895, it was long considered extinct in the wild. The species was finally rediscovered 1959, when it became clear that wild populations are restricted to the vicinity of Mount Kinabalu. Of the three sites discovered, one has subsequently been completely destroyed by fire, leaving only two sites that are both within Kinabalu National Park [1]. P. rothschildianum once had a reputation for being very slow growing and reluctant to bloom, but selective breeding has produced plants that grow at a reasonable speed and are not particularly difficult to flower. These artificially propagated plants are much to be preferred to wild plants that are sometimes still poached from the park.

P. rothschildianum was named in honor of Baron Ferdinand de Rothschild, a Victorian banker, politician, art collector, and orchid grower, making it a member of a select group of orchids named for the Rothschild family. The other members of that club–Eurychone rothschildiana, Ancistrochilus rothschildianus, Bulbophyllum rothschildianum, and Vanda Rothschildiana–are all fantastic plants.

Paph_rothschildianum2
The hook-shaped staminode of P. rothschildianum is covered with glandular hairs. It has been suggested that the hairs mimic an aphid colony to attract the predatory hoverflies which pollinate the flower [2].

Paphiopedilum Saint Swithin

Paphiopedilum saint Swithin inflorescence with four flowers
Paphiopedilum St Swithin, first bloom seedling with four flowers on a single growth.

Paphiopedilum Saint Swithin (P. philippinense x P. rothschildianum) was one of the earliest P. rothschildianum hybrids, and it is still one of the best. It was registered in 1900 by Thomas Statter, who three years earlier had also registered the famous cross of P. rothschildianum x P. stonei as P. Lady Isobel. Unfortunately, orchid hybrid registrations, unlike species descriptions, do not include an etymology section. While it was possible to deduce the identity of Lady Isobel (and correct a 120-year-old spelling error), it is unclear why Statter named a tropical slipper orchid after an Anglo-Saxon saint. Perhaps it first flowered on July 15, St Swithin’s Day, or perhaps Statter had some connection to one of the many schools and churches dedicated to St Swithin/Swithun.

What is clear is that P. St. Swithin is an excellent example of heterosis, the tendency of F1 hybrids to be more vigorous (larger, faster growing, more robust) than either parent. The flowers are somewhat variable, depending on the P. philippinense parent, but they are almost always good quality. My plant was bred using P. philippinense var roebelenii (see photo 1 here for an example), and that parentage is reflected in its long drooping petals. I have also seen plants with shorter petals held at a roughly 45-degree angle, which were presumably bred using P. philippinense plants with shorter petals.

References

  1. Van der Ent, A., Van Vugt, R., and Wellinga, S.M. (2015) Ecology of Paphiopedilum rothschildianum at the type locality in Kinabalu Park (Sabah, Malaysia). Biodiversity and Conservation 24:1641–1656
  2. Atwood, J.T. (1985). Pollination of Paphiopedilum rothschildianum: brood-site deception. National Geographic Research 1: 247-254.

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