Sandy’s Garden ... The Black Orchid of Belize

Sandy Simpson

Sandy Simpson

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Many readers will already know that, like many people nowadays, my wife and I enjoy cruising.

Fifteen years ago, I would have laughed had anyone suggested that this might ever be the case: but a small American cruise line, which has only three ships … with a fourth one being built in Italy right now … the largest of which accommodates just 700 passengers, persuaded me that cruising on their ships is a wonderful way to see the world.

During the first half of March, we sailed from Miami to what cruise lines call ‘the western Caribbean’ in preference to ‘central America’ which is what it really is. Yes, the waters through which the ship sails are indeed the waters of the Caribbean: but the countries to which the ship carries its passengers are mainly in Central America and, in our case, included Belize, which was a British colony until 1971. Belize City, the country’s principal port and capital, was once seen as providing safe anchorage and reprovisioning facilities to the ships of the Royal Navy when Britain ruled the seas. And, when mahogany forests were discovered there around the middle of the seventeenth century, British settlers were not slow to exploit the forests to provide valuable wood for the furniture industry back home. But the over-exploitation and consequent decline in the quantity of available timber and the wish of the indigenous people to become independent resulted in Britain relinquishing its interests in the country.

Enough of the history lesson methinks. So let’s look at the national flower of Belize, Prosthechea cochleata, one of the members of a very large family of plants, the orchids. The very size of the orchid family leads to regular revisions of the sub-divisions into which it is separated by botanists, and the plant presently called Prosthechea cochleata has been named Encyclia cochleata, Anacheilium cochleatum and Epidendrum cochleatum in times gone by. The latter part of all its names … cochleatum or cochleata … which means ‘cockleshell’ reveals why it is commonly called the cockleshell orchid, particularly in Florida. And the reason for the choice of cochleatum or cochleata is because … and, gentle reader, I suspect that you are ahead of me … the flowers resemble cockleshells.

Like most, if not all, orchids, the flowers are the particular attraction of this plant. And they really are quite remarkable, for Prosthechea cochleata flowers pretty much the whole year round. These irregularly-shaped flowers have long, narrow and twisted lower petals and a prominent cap which is dark brown or deep purple with dark lines radiating from a light green … sometimes yellow … centre. It is this very dark colouration which accounts for the plant’s common name in Belize, where it is called the black orchid. The plant is native to Belize and its neighbours, is found growing wild only in swamps and is an epiphyte … ‘a plant that grows non-parasitically upon another plant (such as a tree), and derives its moisture and nutrients from the air, rain, and sometimes from debris accumulating around it instead of the structure it is fastened’ to quote Wikipedia.

The horticultural trade has, if course, produced several hybrids of this species which are suitable for indoor cultivation in the UK. They can be bought from specialist suppliers and need bright, indirect sunlight in a humid environment where there is air-circulation but no draughts. The temperature needs to be around 21ºC … say, 70ºF … during the day, dropping to about 16ºC or 60ºF at night; and the plants must be watered regularly. I didn’t actually see one in Belize: but I was advised that they are more trouble than they are worth!