When the Berlin Herbarium was destroyed in a bombing raid on March 1, 1943 many precious floral specimens were destroyed forever.
Among them was the only known specimen of Taeniophyllum cylindrocentrum, a tiny orchid collected by botanist Rudolf Schlechter on a field trip to (then German) New Guinea in the early 1900s.
It was thought that another specimen may never be found again.
However, 75 years later, Dr Mark Clements, a research scientist at the Australian National Herbarium, unexpectedly ‘‘rediscovered’’ the very same species in his Canberra laboratory.
Late last year, Clements was examining a number of orchids that his colleague Bruce Jones had borrowed from the Brisbane Herbarium, including one collected by John Clarkson from the upper reaches of the Chester River in northern Queensland in 1978.
“Before returning material on loan from other herbariums, the normal protocol is to reidentify it,” says Clements. “So before packing it up ready for shipping, I tipped it out and had a good look at it.
“When I looked at the roots, I thought something was a bit odd because the only recorded species from the group of Taeniophyllum orchids in Australia had flattened roots, and this one didn’t.
“I then looked at the flower carefully and realised it wasn’t a known Australian species,” recalls Clements who excitedly set about “trying to identify it.”
One of the first places Clements looked was Schlechter’s authoritative The Orchids of German New Guinea (1912). While sifting through more than 1500 orchids described in Schlechter’s book, Clements found a description of what appeared to be the same species of orchid as that collected by Clarkson in Queensland in 1978.
Closer inspection and double-checks with other sources confirmed he’d hit the jackpot.
“The defining feature was the short, round cylindrical spur on the flower which Schlechter made clear in his description,” explains Clements.
“It was a perfect match!” exclaims Clements who confirmed it was Taeniophyllum cylindrocentrum, the very same species destroyed in the Berlin bombing.
Prior to today, the rediscovery of the species has been kept a closely guarded secret.
“Orchids generate much excitement – they are like the pandas of the plant world,” explains Clements, who, now that the rediscovery is public, expects amateur orchidologists to search for more specimens of the rare orchid.
“Once people know there’s another species out there, they’ll try and find it. “The discovery of this orchid in Australia also gives hope that there are more to discover.”
The story behind the illustration
Rather than being pressed like many other floral specimens, orchids are often preserved in ethanol.
“When you press an orchid you can lose a lot of detail, especially if they have small flowers,” explains Clements. “But one of the disadvantages of using ethanol is that you lose all the orchid’s colour”.
As the rediscovered Taeniophyllum cylindrocentrum specimen was pickled in ethanol, Clements enlisted the help of local natural history artist Cheryl Hodges to illustrate what the orchid would look like in full glory.
“The whole story just blew me away,” reports Hodges of Jerrabomberra. “It was one of the more challenging illustrations I’ve ever drawn, there was a lot of detective work to pull all the information together.
“At the beginning I was just baffled, I though oh my gosh, how am I going to do this?”
Armed with Schlechter’s line drawing of part of the orchid and the pickled specimen, Hodges worked for more than 80 hours to complete her illustration.
“Schlechter’s sketch was only a side view of dissected floral parts of the orchid so I had to take advice from Mark [Clements],” explains Hodges. “Getting the colour right was particularly tricky as Schlechter described it as ‘whitish yellow’ which Mark said was different to yellowish white”.
Hodges and Clements are both very happy with the final results of the illustration.
“This is where botanical art comes into its own,” says Hodges. “Unlike a photo, with a botanical illustration you can capture all the different stages of the life cycle.
“It was a real honour to be involved with this project. With so many species becoming extinct, it’s especially important to document something that’s rare”.
Australian National Herbarium: This remarkable Canberra repository is part of the Centre for Australian National Biodiversity Research, a joint venture between Parks Australia’s Australian National Botanic Gardens and CSIRO. More: www.csiro.au/en/Research/Collections/ANH
Botanical art: You can view more of Cheryl’s botanical art here: www.cherylhodges.com
Did You Know? Canberra’s Black Mountain Nature Reserve is home to some 60 known species of orchid — that’s more than exist in the whole of the British Isles. Several readers of this column including Peter Randall of Campbell report the lack of rain this year has dramatically impacted on their numbers. “Orchids are usually be found in abundance in spring, but a few weekends ago I searched a whole morning on Black Mountain without success.”
Berlin Herbarium: The destruction of the Berlin Herbarium was a catastrophe of major proportions to world botany as it was one of the largest and most important in the world and contained thousands of specimens collected by German botanists and also borrowed from foreign institutions.
Earlier this week, adventurous kayakers were perplexed when the sea around the Tollgate Islands off Batemans Bay turned bright pink.
“It was incredible, it was like paddling through a giant pink-coloured soup,” reports Phill Sledge, this column’s coastal correspondent, who snapped some photos of the phenomena while on an early morning paddle.
The pink sea, caused by a bioluminescent algal bloom, was photographed from the air by Josh Burkinshaw. The Batemans Bay shutterbug also captured several photos of the algae glowing at night, similar to those which recently featured in this column, dazzling beachgoers at Jervis Bay.
Contact Tim: Email: firstname.lastname@example.org or Twitter: @TimYowie or write c/- The Canberra Times, 9 Pirie St, Fyshwick. You can see a selection of past columns online.
Where in the region?
Clue: One of the Monaro’s most-treasured memorial halls.
Degree of difficulty: Hard.
Congratulations to Angela Lomasney of Lyons who was the first reader to correctly identify last week’s photo as one of several curved doors at the Berrima Courthouse.
Angela, who submitted her entry while travelling on the Southern Aurora “somewhere between Yass Junction and Junee”, visited the historic 1830s courthouse with her dad “many years ago and was very taken by the shape of the door.”
Remarkably, each curved door is hand-sawn from a single piece of cedar.
Berrima is a less than a two-hour drive from Canberra, making it an ideal day trip. The courthouse is open daily from 10am to 4pm.
Meanwhile, Sue Jeffs of Melba reports, “There is also a curved door in the Mechanics Institute building in Yass,” or at least there was when she worked there in the 1990s. When opened on November 30, 1869, a public holiday was declared in Yass to celebrate.
The building is in the main street and now houses a medical practice. I wonder if the curved door is still there?
How to enter: Email your guess along with your name and address to email@example.com. The first email sent after 10am, Saturday 27 October, 2018 will win a double pass to Dendy - The Home of Quality Cinema.