African treasures

It is surprising that African orchids are not better known and all the more extraordinary when we realise that many of them were discovered over a century ago. Perhaps some of the reason resides in the fact that many of them bear white flowers—though on reflection it is the alba forms that are often the most coveted and highly prized among many orchids from other lands.

A more likely solution lies in the smaller size the flowers for, apart from a few species most African orchids have smaller blooms than the popular Far Eastern and Tropical American kinds. However, possibly resulting from a surfeit of size and ever more brilliant colours provided by the efforts of clever hybridization, interest in orchids from Africa and its nearby islands is persistently infiltrating our greenhouses with charmingly dainty flowers, some elegantly long-spurred and many prepared to share a heady fragrance with those who appreciate such attributes.

The African continent is not as richly endowed with orchids as South America and south East Asia, even when Madagascar, with its wealth of orchids, is included in the comparison. According to Stewart & Campbell (1970), the entire African region, including Madagascar, Mauritius, Reunion and the Seychelles, has perhaps 2,000—3,000 indigenous species, whereas in South America, the country of Colombia alone far surpasses that number. This, however, does not mean that there are no wonderful and desirable beauties among the African orchids.

Large parts of Africa have climates that are not conducive to orchids. Much of the continent is desert and semi-desert, from the vast Sahara in the north to the Namib and Kalahari in the south and southwest. The wide grasslands and savannas that cover immense areas are also not very rich in orchids — only a few terrestrial species can be found among the tall elephant-grass or under the thorny Acaeia trees. These parts of Africa experience long dry seasons and sometimes there may be no or little rain for years.

Even with this increase of information it is not easy to find guidelines on culture in the northern hemisphere as the very different quality of light alone plays an important part in determining whether or how much to shade plants let alone what temperature will be most suitable for how wide a range of species.

However, there are plenty of orchids in the rainforests around the Gulf of Guinea, in equatorial Africa, near the east and south east coast and on high ground elsewhere and of course on Madagascar.

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