SPECIES WITHOUT FACES

When one has spent much time with, for example, a group of plants representing the species of one genus, one develops a familiarity with the various plants. On next seeing a known plant of the genus, one recognises it as an old friend; it has developed a face. Humans have a well-developed area in the brain which picks out the features that make up and differentiate the human face and this faculty is so effective that it is possible for an individual to recognise the faces of a multitude of people and even visualise human faces in suitable clouds and shadows. Perhaps part of this system is called into operation when we become personal friends with a plant. Botanists have long recognised this ability and use the Latin word for face - facies to describe the subconsciously applied set of characteristics that are used to instantly recognise a particular plant species. It may be said that a given plant has the facies of one or other species.
Having grown particular species until a certain boredom sets in, some people then decide to seek a variation on the theme that interest them. Hybridisation is one avenue that can be followed. The 'ennoblement' of a species is another. This latter course requires either the selfing of an excellent specimen or the crossing of two excellent specimens of the same species and then applying severe selection to the progeny. Some of these progeny may be truly excellent horticultural subjects, but here a double edged sword appears. On the plus side, excellent greenhouse-bred specimens become the standard for the 'species' and those plants in the wild are now considered 'inferior' and will be left alone. On the minus side, wild-collected specimens already in cultivation, which may ultimately be all we have left of a particular species, are then discarded as worthless, being replaced by 'improved' plants.
In the process of ennoblement, interesting things may happen. The natural characteristics of a species may not coincide with the aesthetic sensibilities of man, so some of the 'improvements' that are selected may be those that reduce the prominence of certain features. What ultimately happens is that plants come into being that no longer have the facies of the species they purport to represent.
At the 2000 South African Orchid Conference and Show in Pretoria, I saw two examples of species plants that had lost their faces. The reserve champion was a beautiful, well-flowered, bifoliate Cattleya labelled C. intermedia which was so full and well-coloured that it did not come close to my concept of this species. There appears to be a tendency by some Brazilian orchid nurseries to offer selfed seedlings of Cattleya natural hybrids as those of a desirable form of the species they most resemble and these plants flower out with characteristics not normally associated with the named species. These plants are then later judged according to their label and not common sense.
In one of his lectures, Dr Norito Hasegawa of Paphanatics in California showed a slide of a flower of a greenhouse-bred Paphiopedilum spicerianum with a flat dorsal sepal. This species is characterised by its fascinating, funnel-shaped dorsal, so as far as I could see, this particular specimen had also lost its face.
It is strange to think that the time may still come when the average, back-garden orchid fancier would be hard-pressed to identify in the wild, plants of 'species' he has growing in his own greenhouse !

© 2003-2009 Greig Russell

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