Orchids in Yemen [Archives:2000/12/Last Page]

March 20 2000

Part 3 & Final

Barbara Evans

The more we looked for orchids in Yemen, the moreinquisative we became about their recent history. From the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries onwards expeditions had been sponsored by the great and good of Europe, not only concerned with philological queries about the interpretation of the Bible, but also to forge trade routes, and answer many geographical, ethnological and archaeological puzzles. Not least amongst these unknowns was the natural history of the world. As well as this, in every expedition there was an element of rivalry. It could be argued that the ‘Arabian Journey’ to Egypt and Yemen- which was to have on board a philologist, a naturalist and astronomer, -was initiated by the King of Denmark and Norway to counter the success of the Royal Swedish Academy of Science whose first president was the brilliant botanist and taxonomist Linnaeus. To be fair, the expedition was mounted, with some courts; Pehr Forsskal, the chosen naturalist was, in fact, Swedish and has studied under Linnaeus, Carsten Niebuhr the surveyor was Hanoverian, whilst only the philologist, Frederick Christian von Haven, was Danish. Departing from Copenhagen in January 1761 the trials and tribulations of this expedition are well documented and worth reading. It is a marvel that any material collected on the journey ever reached home, for the botanist died in Yarim on 5 July 1763; Carsten Niebuhr, the sole survivor, having traveled on to India and then home overland, was away six years in all. Great credit is surely due it him, for after working ten further years he had published not only his own reports but almost all of his perished colleagues’ results too.
Three orchids were found by Pehr Forsskal, Holothrix aphylla, Eulophia petersii and Eulophia streptopetala var. rueppelii (modern nomenclature) so when we first found the little Holothrix aphyalla on the stony graveyard in 1983, it was as though we were in a time warp, for no one else, we thought, had discovered it since 1762. Our moment of glory was brief, however, for later we read in a Kew Bulletin published in 1979, that it had already been re-discovered that same year, as indeed had the other two, by John Wood who sent samples to Kew Garden in London for little orchid did not flower regularly each year, so perhaps both he and we were just lucky to find it. Far from being deterred, we were even enthusiastic to use every outing from Sana’a to search elusive exotics. Nobody we knew seemed to talk “orchids”, let alone “botany”, apart that is from an occasional visitor to Yemen, a French geologist called Patrice Christman who once told us he had seen a pinkish orchid (Eulophia petersii,) near Taiz, on a previous visit, long before we saw it ourselves, in 1989. A great orchid enthusiast, he had eagerly photographed the tiny Holothrix aphylla (and us with it!) when we showed him where it was in 1987.
Some orchids are immediately recognizable from their colour and habit; Eulophia petersii is one of these. But some, such as the green Habenaris, are unbearable difficult, especially when out in the field with nothing more than a general book of flowers of Europe to use as a guideline. To pick them would be anathema; we knew they were rare, but ‘rare’ meaning ‘possibly unknown’! Once in 1983, traveling mid-morning over the bumpy track from Ibb west to the Mashwara Pass, with a slightly impatient family aboard a tightly packed and therefore uncomfortable Landrover, we spotted several flowering heads of a Habenaria. There was no time to draw it, let alone paint, for the family had the Red Sea in mid-an empty beach, a cool swim and picnic under the shade of the doum palms. For them, to arrive was better by far to travel hopefully, or so it seemed. They were fretful as we still had an enormous journey ahead of us, a couple of hundred kilometers, and were not absolutely sure of where we would camp. But I have played Eurydice once too often; the though of traveling on with only my memory to trust, was too great. My heart and soul would forever look back, for who knew when we could return to the same remote spot where we found them. For better or worse I picked one; the stem of this precious cargo was padded in damp newspaper an old drinks can, lodged in a corner of the wooden chop-box where flower heads would not be crushed. Then on we drove, back through Ibb and Taiz, down through Kuzayjah, and swinging north at Mafraq al Mukha we followed the concrete Russian road until we reached Wadi Urfan. By this time black thunder streaked with threads of golden lightening were grumbling away to the south of us and we were uncertain whether the powdery sandy soil of the wadi would be kind to us if the rain should come. Yet we bumped on across the empty landscape, arriving at the beach at Mawhij, not unusually with thumping headaches all round.
No doum palms! No shade! And the tide was out. Somehow we rigged up a merciful shelter, for although there seemed to be no sun, radiant heat came from the sky, and the already traumatized orchid would otherwise curl up and die away from its cool mountain home. Whilst John and Mike went off fossicking and bird watching along the beach, I did my best to draw and paint; mad dogs and Englishmen- and women- they say, go out in the mid-day sun. Had we never found another, had the flowers perished, would this Habenaria attenuate be recognizable from my painting? Dire thoughts. Dire straight. I was allowed about an hour, then pack up we must. It was done, though, with never enough time to show the intricacies of its three dimensional structure and yet retain the soul, the essence- art, not all science. We packed again, and drove on and on until we came to Mansuriyah where we turned east and spent a marvelously moonlit night camped on a pottery -packed midden at al Midman, sleeping on Houndsfield in the open air, though under mosquito nets.
When we did arrive home a few days later, the flower was alive, but of course we still had no books to lead us through an analysis of its exact structure, to find the name. In fact all of the orchids we found were drawn before I could find any way of identifying them. Only later did we find it, thanks to Philip Cribb’s key in the 1979 Kew Bulletin; one or two other books were useful, if only by a process of elimination of photographs, and these books I also list here. Orchids in this land are rare and should not be picked unless with direct instruction on how to preserve and send them for identification to a well known herbarium for identification.