The White Nun and the Tahitian Vanilla

What, you might wonder, have nuns to do with exotic spices, and even more so, what have either to do with Guatemala? The answer is orchids, in both cases they are plants which became important well beyond the dark, damp forests where they originated.

I came across this fascinating detective
story recently, about the search for the origin of the champagne of vanillas, if that isn’t too ridiculous a metaphor, vanilla tahitensis. As its name suggests it grows on the island of Tahiti, and a few other islands in the Pacific, but the mystery is how it got there, as vanilla is not native to the island but to the tropical forests of the Americas. What’s more intriguing is that the tahitensisspecies does not occur in any of those forests either. It turns out that it almost certainly made its way to French Polynesia from Guatemala, where the species was created by the Maya from the accidental hybrid of two other vanilla species which occur in the forests of Mesoamerica. The Maya would habitually cultivate vanilla and cocoa in “chocolate gardens” and this probably created the conditions for hybridisation between two closely related vanilla species. If you like a good mystery you should enjoy the tale of how the riddle was eventually solved.

It then struck me that of course another member of the orchid family, the Monja Blanca, or “White Nun”, is the national flower of Guatemala. This plant was first collected and specimens sent out to eager collectors by a Scotsman, George Ure Skinner, at the height of the Victorian orchid craze. The scientific name of the plant, Lycaste skinneri var alba, commemorates his discovery. George Skinner was not a botanist by training, but he became a collector and enthusiast by accident when James Bateman, another orchid fanatic, recruited him
to find him promising plants after he went to Guatemala primarily as a businessman. The plant was painted by another Victorian orchidophile and prolific artist, John Day, and recently appeared in a book of his work. It became a very highly sought after plant and so many were collected that trade in it had to be restricted to prevent it becoming extinct in the wild.

These days one would like to think that our attitudes to wild plants like orchids is a bit more enlightened, and mechanisms like CITES, to which Guatemala has been a party since 1980, restrict the trade in endangered plants and animals. However, as we all know areas of forest in Guatemala are under threat from a variety of forces. We have to hope that for all of man’s depredations we shall still be able to see the White Nun and the vanilla vines in their native habitats and not just in botanical glass houses

Categories: Culture

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