Lesser orchid leads to lost Spanish botanic garden
I like orchids. Particularly the tiny ground orchids you find in abundance in southern Australia. I don't mind some of the larger kinds, with their canes draping from trees or emerging from cracks in large rocks.
I'm less enthusiastic about the orchids with aspidistra-like leaves and single-coloured flowers that are perhaps red or purple. This, Bletilla striata, is one of these. I found it near to the plant I featured last week, in the South China Collection.
There is an orchid genus called Bletia from central America, and Bletilla is the Latin diminutive, which usually means it's a smaller or lesser version. The two genera are unrelated, other than both being orchids, with quite different floral architectures. Yet they are both ground orchids, with pinkish-purple flowers.
According to Mark Chase, Maaten Christenhusz and Tom Mirenda's The Book of Orchids, the flowers of Bletia are only a little smaller than those of Bletilla but the flowering stems are much smaller. The leaves are about the same size. (Noting that I've made this comparison based only on the two species featured in this book.)
The Purple Ground Orchid is endangered due to over collecting, presumably for horticulture and for its medicinal uses. According to The Book of Orchids, the bulbs (technically, 'pseudobulbs') are used in Chinese medicine, mixed with other compounds, to reduce swelling and bleeding, and to promote healing. We are also told the mucilage from those bulbs is used to make ceramics.
So have I grown to love this species after better understanding its nomenclature and cultural use? Well, contrary to Australian country musician Casey Chamber's song, it's pretty enough. But not stunning compared to our local orchids.
More interesting to me is the origin of the genus name for both Bletia and Bletillia. Don Luis Blet was an eighteenth century military pharmacist and botanist who curated his own botanic garden in Algeciras, in the province of Cádiz in southern Spain.
Blet travelled to South America with Hipólito Ruiz and José Pavón (see my blog post, Del Neuvo Mundo, on these journeys) and it was they who named the first genus, Bletia, after him in 1784. Some of his American collections were presumably grown in Algeciras, before being shared with other botanic gardens in Spain.
In my searching on the web, I can only find mention of the botanic garden in nearby Gibraltar, and various non-botanical parks in Algeciras. Nothing about Blet's botanic garden surviving today.
I had one other source. My wife Lynda visited Algeciras while I was leading my last tour of Spanish gardens a couple of years ago. She searched her pictures but found only this park established in 1975 by a Mr Smith. Nothing from the eighteenth century by Don Blet.