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Thursday, February 29, 2024

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Thursday, February 29, 2024

U ‘Tiewdohmaw Laiphew Na Ar Jingmut

From the threat of deforestation to theft for sale in the orchid market, the jewel orchids, of which there are many varieties, has had a tumultuous history in Meghalaya.

By Preana Chettri

In the Missouri Botanical Garden in the US is an old text from the late-nineteenth-century – The Annals of the Royal Botanic Garden, Calcutta. This first volume of this valuable piece of literature was published in 1888 by Bengal Secretariat Book Depot. By 1921, the twelfth volume had been published. The Annals is among some of the most extensive records by the British of plant species in India. In Volume VIII, we find a collection of plates that remain pertinent to this day – the jewel orchids of India; among these are the jewel orchids with a native distribution across Meghalaya.

In the wild, about 300 orchids are found naturally in Meghalaya – some growing as air plants known as epiphytes, some clinging to rocks as lithophytes and others growing on decay known as saprophytes. In Khasi homes, orchids are a gardener’s staple, roped to trees or deadwood.  But the jewel orchid is unique amongst them all; these are a collection of forest-floor orchids, terrestrials, that fall under the broader Goodyerinae subtribe. A plant subtribe is a division of plants with such small botanical differences that only botanists best recognize them. Among the most well-known genera, an even narrower classification, are Ludisia, Goodyera, Dossinia and Anoectochilus, and they are found across the Indo-China as well as in the New World.

The jewel orchid is unique for being able to grow in soil, where most orchids require special potting mixes if not tied to bark or rock. Unlike many other orchids with alienesque flowers, this orchid’s inflorescence is insignificant – ghostly white clusters of miniature flowers that grow on tall stalks. The leaves of the orchid are a deep maroon, dark green or nearly black, with fluorescent veins that can come in pinks, reds or yellows. The veins themselves are patterned differently in different types of jewel orchids – lines running straight across the length of the leaf, marbled or like cracked lava. For how these delicate veins are designed by nature, the plant is also called a filigree orchid.

Among Khasis, the jewel orchid has its own name – U ‘tiewdohmaw. Poet U Soso Tham even uses the phrase U ‘tiew dohmaw laiphew-na-ar-jingmut – the stone-kissing flower with 28 minds – referring to one who is intelligent without being boastful. For long the Khasis have known these orchids and their nature. Indeed, orchids have long captured the attention of many cultures, from the elusive ghost orchid (Dendrophylax lindenii) of Florida and Cuba to Asian slipper orchids, one of the rarest orchid types and also found in Meghalaya. Many of these “people” are smugglers catering to the desires of gluttonous collectors and home gardeners. Orchid smuggling is such a menace that the last and only wildly surviving British lady slipper (Cypripedium calceolus) – related to Meghalaya’s Paphiopedilum insigne, endangered in the wild but fetching as high as Rs 1,500 at Ïewduh – is guarded round the clock and only a select group of Britons are privy to its secret location.

Meghalaya, then, is especially victim to ruthless orchidelirum that has heightened even more since the pandemic turned barren flats into caged gardens. We know of at least 352 species across 98 genera in the state, and together, they comprise some 27.08% of the country’s orchid flora. That means, Meghalaya is at the heart of orchid smuggling, and thus orchid extinction.

At the Department of Forest, Environment and Climate Change, the Government of Meghalaya operates the Plant Tissue Culture Laboratory under the Silviculture Division – visitors are sometimes allowed with official permission, but photography is strictly prohibited. Orchidologists in the state are racing against the vagaries of trends in smuggling, deforestation and climate change to revive rare and endangered orchids, including jewel orchids, through plant tissue culture, in which cellular cultures of seeds, embryos, callus, organs, protoplasts and anthers are grown in dishes to create clones – a delicate process when all else has failed.

U ‘tiewdohmaw is particularly tricky – in the wild, it prefers high humidity and moisture. It cannot be disturbed, and sunlight bleaches its dramatic foliage. Germination from seed is usually unsuccessful because the plant has no endosperm; cuttings, a common propagation technique, take long to root, during which the plant risks rotting away. The jewel orchid also has unique fungal requirements. Gardeners often fail to keep the plant alive.

On Instagram, where young, well-off women have taken to haphazardly procuring endangered species, the plant, only three to four inches with scant leaves, can cost up to Rs 800. Everywhere the jewel orchid is found, it is endangered and rarely do sellers even know which type of Northeastern jewel orchid they are selling.

Dr Viki Manners, the head orchidologist in charge of the heroic task of saving orchids, says “There is absence of regulation and existing laws are not enforced properly. So there is over-extraction of the rarest and most valuable types of orchids”. But the jewel orchid, and other exotic plants such as the insect-eating Khasi pitcher (Nepenthes khasiana), have not yet become a craze because of how expensive they are.

While there are laws to regulate trade of critically endangered plants, loopholes in documentation mean that jewel orchids smuggled from deep forests in Meghalaya are then legally exported for sale. Indeed, Meghalayan jewel orchids are more easily found in international black markets than in the wild.

“We are on a war footing for conserving our natural habitats”, informs Manners. The field staff at the forest department are routinely trained to identify jewel orchids, among others – and they remain unnamed custodians to a race of flowers with no means to fight for their own survival on their own land. Orchid experts are often brought in to educate field staff further. Manners says the government hopes to expand orchid conservation areas so residents, students and even tourists can be taught the importance of wild orchids.

“With the support of the stakeholders, it has become easier to conserve this rare plant wealth”, says Manners. Some of the risks to the jewel orchid, however, are beyond the control of orchidologists like him, and he can only pray for genuine awareness among locals. The jewel orchids are spread unevenly across the state’s forest cover. Uncontrolled deforestation, urban planning, monoculture farming and commercial overexploitation have fragmented their natural habitat, making self-propagation immensely difficult. Unlike wild Alocasias, foreign Lantana and spiderwort weeds and Philodendrons, the jewel orchid is not a resilient plant. Like Tham writes, it is not boastful despite its rare and mesmerising beauty.

“Plant tissue culture and micro-propagation laboratory techniques are now economical. They are ecologically important across the world to repopulate decimated populations and for commercial production”, says Manners.

While the technique is not new, it has become the go-to solution to revive endangered species.

In Meghalaya, nine species of jewel orchids are found: Anoectochilus hrevilahris, Anoectochilus roxburghii, Goodyera hispida, Goodyera recurva, Goodyera schlechtendaliana, Odontochilus elwesii, Odontochilus lanceolatus, Rhomboda lanceolata and Zeuxine pulchra. As demand from reckless gardeners and sellers slowly grows, all nine are at risk of extinction in the wild.

The maniacal craze for orchids first began in Victorian England, as colonial exploits introduced to Europe a dizzying array of exotic orchids. That delirium continues today, but it is not limited to wealthy aristocrats in the erstwhile Empire anymore. Given the shady history of procuring orchids, will hunters in Shillong think again before stealing or buying a rare jewel orchid?

ALSO READ: SPEAK YOUR ROOTS: Daïarisa Rumnong shares her thoughts on Khasi reading culture

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