Selected Species - by Peter Taylor

Paphiopedilum bellatulum Paph_bellatulum.jpg - 0 Bytes

In the 19th century the "jewel in the crown" of the British Empire was the Indian Raj. A colleague of mine who lectures in Indian history maintains that the only benefits the British brought to the Indian sub-continent were the English language, British law and the railway network. However, if much of India had not been added to the British Empire the English may not have looked towards Burma and their eventual annexation of the Shan States.

If not for these cirumstances, Mr Moore, the British commander of Fort Stedman on the shores of Lake Inle, would not have found Paphiopedilum bellatulum and introduced one of the great orchid species to the western world!

Plants collected by Moore were sent to the nursery of Messrs Low & Co. in England and it was described by Reichenbach in 1888. His note on Cypripedium bellatulum n.sp. mentions that "This is near to C. godefroyar.... the leaves are blunt, very strong ... beautifully marbled with light hieroglyphic spots above, with innumerable brown dots underneath,  The immense flower is spotted all over, some of the spots being very large; the colour is white of whitish-yellow".

The plants when released for sale by Low & Co. created a sensation with their handsome leaves and strikingly beautiful flowers - but where did they come from?  A German collector, Dr Witt in Orchis (6th ed. 1912) stated that "The house of Low & Co. wrapped themselves in deep silence about the origin of the new Cypripede as this is mostly done".

It was some years before the original collecting areas were revealed; the southern Shan States around Lake Inle and the Maymayo area in upper Burma. In the current "bible" for paphiopedilum enthusiasts, The Genus Paphiopedilum, second edition 1998, Phillip Cribb states that "in recent years nearly all the imported plants have come from Thailand although Held (1978) reports at least one importation from the original collecting area in Maymayo in Burma". The 'Held' that he refers to is a Mrs Meta Held who wrote a captivating article entitled "The Burmese Paphiopedilum bellatulum" in Orchid Digest of January-February 1978.

Held's article is a gem and should be consulted by all growers of Paphiopedilum bellatulum.  For example, she cites the original collector Moore and his vivid description of the areas where he collected Paphiopedilum species:

"The whole country is sparsely populated.  It is the home of the tiger, the bear, wild boar, leopard and of huge snakes. The collecting of plants is attended with a good deal of danger.  The Shans will only go out in parties of about ten, and they take with them gongs, which are beaten to scare away the wild beasts".

Some superb varieties of Paphiopedilum bellatulum were evident in the early collections. In 1888 a second collection produced a plant which the Royal Horticultural Society noted had flowers of "tintees de rose" and which was awarded an FCC. In 1906 the Gardener's Chronicle described an outstanding plant which gained an FCC for "its very dark, port-wine-like shade of the very dense dots, so intensive and beautiful that this variety would by far belong to the most splendid Cypripedes".Paph_bellat2.jpg - 0 Bytes

Cribb (1988) mentions that in June 1895 another recipient of the FCC was an albino plant introduced by Messrs Charlesworth and flowered by Sir Frederick Wigan. The collector? Once again, Mr. R. Moore from the Shan States in Burma. Cribb goes on to note that although the albino "bellatulum" was named as var. album it is best treated at the rank of form. So, correctly Paphiopedilum bellatulum fma. album.

So much for a brief historical ramble regarding the introduction of this lovely orchid to the eager European collectors. What about its habitat? What clues are offered so that species enthusiasts can cultivate it?

Its first collection was in Burma.  It is also found in "adjacent parts of north-east Thailand and south-western Yunnan province of China growing on limestone at between 900-1500m altitude in light shade or in the open" - Cribb (1998). Held (1978) notes two Burmese habitats. The first, near Maymayo, was a place of high humidity near rivers and the plants were growing under small deciduous trees almost hidden in tall grasses.  They grew in a thick deposit of leaf mould, very porous, about 35cm deep to a limestone base.

The second habitat was interesting. What at first looked like large limestone blocks proved to be the remains of an old pagoda overgrown by jungle and covered with moss and ferns.  Held describes it beautifully "out of the green carpet on the wall looked P. bellatulum. In their porcelain white beauty some of the open flowers furnished an incredible contrast to the green background.  A more romantic spot for P. bellatulum to grow could hardly be imagined".

The Burmese habitats have valuable clues for the cultivation of the species. High humidity, air circularion, an open medium for the roots. Cribb (1998) reinforces this with his observation that "the species of this section (Brachypetalum) are strongly calcicous and grow in sheltered places in the cracks and crevices of limestone outcrops generally in a thin layer of leaf mould and moss; P. bellatulum is no exception".

The talented and super enthusiastic editor of the Orchid Digest in 1977 was the now sadly deceased Jack Fowlie.  In this publication of January-February 1977 he recounts vividly his location of Paphiopedilum bellatulum in Thailand. The species "grows on limestone outcrops to the North to Southwest of Chiang Mai in northern Thailand.... in high elevation habitats plants grow on limestone boulders in the vicinity of bamboo thickets on the cool upper slopes of high peaks ... they receive condensation by dew and cloudcaps".  At lower elevations (1100 ft, 330m) the plants grow in airy conditions in a moist, humid atmosphere in "bright reflected light off the rocks".

Fowlie goes on to say that in summer plants are shaded by deciduous shrubs.  In winter they receive much brighter light but the air is cooler and breezes keep leaf temperatures down.

Plants flower at the beginning of the spring rainy season. Main plant growth occurs in the summer and it is worth noting this following important note by Fowlie - "the winter rest period is important for growth of strong plants when only the moisture retained in the clay keeps the roots damp, plus whatever night condensation might be afforded by the nearby river in the canyon below". This is a crucial factor in the successful cultivation of this species.

I have included two illustrations of P. bellatulum to accompany this article.  The first, a 'regular' spotted plant is owned by James Indsto, a member of SPECIES in Sydney.  It was photographed by the owner. The second, the "fma. album" is owned by me and was photographed by David Banks.  Both illustrations reveal the beauty of the flowers. Although the alba form has a pristine beauty and has exceptionally thick texture like a fine piece of ceramic pottery, I must admit a preference for the regular 'spotted form'.

The culture of Paphiopedilum bellatulum all but defeated me for a number of years until I purchased the expensive alba form and decided I just had to grow the plant well, both for the sake of the plant itself and for financial reasons.  I checked more carefully on habitat notes, especially conditions experienced in situ during the winter period. So, I offer the following for your consideration:

  • Always underpot Brachypetalum species - consistently wet, large pots spell doom for the plant.

  • Use a rather open potting mix. I use a medium bark with about 25 per cent limestone pebbles

  • Pot the plant a little higher than normal. New growths can easily rot if too low in a wet medium

  • Most importantly, remember the note by Fowlie and be very careful not to over-water in winter. In my glasshouse, which is fairly humid, I water, in winter, only every 10 days or so and then only lightly.

Mr Tanaka, a Japanese Paphiopedilum enthusiast, maintains that to grow large Brachypetalum species, especially P. bellatulum, you must follow the rule of "never transplanting". He apparently has plants growing in a stone and woody material which have not been repotted for 10 years. A plant pictured on his website was one of 10-12 growths and looked in wonderful condition.

I'm not sure whether I would rigidly follow this advice but certainly Brachypetalum species seem to resent repotting. My 'bellatulum album' has not been repotted for three years and appears to be thriving.

Paphiopedilum bellatulum is one of the showiest species of the dwarf white lady-slippers of sub-genus Brachypetalum. It is not the easiest species to grow successfully but to flower a good clone and look upon its beauty is an experience all species enthusiasts should have.  Besides, think how easy it is for us to simply open out glasshouse door to find Paphiopedilum bellatulum and not to have to cope with tigers, bears, wild boars, leopards and huge snakes!

© Peter Taylor and Australian Orchid Council Inc. 2001

Originally published in "Orchids Australia" October 2001