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Vol. 12(3), pp. 6-11The McAllen International Orchid Society JournalMarch 2011

A 1971 Philatelic Bouquet of Peruvian Orchids

Eric Olsen


The January MIOS Journal's foray into the world of philately reminded me that many years ago I too once actively collected postage stamps. So, I dug about in some old boxes, pulled out an album or two, swept off the dust, and started leafing through the pages. In the section devoted to Peru, I encountered some of the exotic stamps that I had collected as a child - a handful of Peruvian orchids depicted in a series of five stamps from 1971. At the time, I was not orchid-aware; to me the stamps simply represented pretty flowers. Now, a little more educated in orchid lore, I know that each stamp has the potential lead me on an interesting, if idiosyncratic, chase through orchid literature and history.

Gongora portentosa Linden & Rchb.f., Gard. Chron. 1869: 892 (1869).

Fig. 1. Gongora portentosa.

Gongora portentosa (Fig. 1) was first noted by science in "The Gardeners' Chronicle and Agricultural Gazette" of Saturday, 21 August 1869. Published weekly, the format was a newspaper of news and events of interest to botanists and horticulturists. Tucked in between a short news item about "a vast swarm of lady-birds" that "filled the air and covered the earth at every conceivable point" and a longer article on the advantages of growing fruit in glass "orchard houses", was a small notice on "New Plants". In it, Mormodes uncia, Oncidium exasperatum (Cyrtochilum exasperatum), Gongora portentosa, and Trichocentrum tigrinum were all described for the first time. Following the usual botanical Latin description of each new species was a brief paragraph in English. For Gongora portentosa: "This is a very singular novelty, with numerous large yellowish flowers, having fleshy violet petals with purplish dots; the column is similarly coloured, and the upper part of the shining lip is also violet. We are indebted for it to M. Linden. H. G. R." The curious thing here is that this description almost reads like a society column listing the debutantes attending a ball. In this case, the Belgian orchid collector Monsieur Jean Linden has brought the lovely flower and the eminent botanist Herr Professor Heinrich Gustav Reichenbach is the columnist.

Odontoglossum cristatum Lindl. in G.Bentham, Pl. Hartw.: 152 (1845).

Fig. 2. Odontoglossum cristatum.

The reference here is to a book by George Bentham with the title of "Plantas Hartwegianas". The name refers to the plant collector Karl Theodor Hartweg who was sent in 1836 by the Royal Horticultural Society to Mexico, with the "[commission] to collect and transmit to the Society seeds, root, and plants ..." (Bentham, iii). Back in England, Bentham worked with John Lindley to identify (or describe) and publish Hartweg's deliveries. By 1841 Hartweg had moved his collection activities to South America. Odontoglossum cristatum (Fig. 2) was plant number 844, collected in the mountains of southern Ecuador, somewhere in the area near the town of Loja (Loxa; Bentham, 113).

Mormolyca peruviana C.Schweinf., Amer. Orchid Soc. Bull. 13: 196 (1944).

Fig. 3. Mormolyca peruviana.

The AOS Bulletin article describing Mormolyca peruviana (Fig. 3), notes that "the present novelty represents the incursion of the genus [Mormolyca] into South America." Until then, it had been considered a monotypic genus consisting of the species Mormolyca ringens and "confined to Mexico and Central America" (Schweinfurth, 198). Since then, some 20 other species have been found in the genus, nicely filling in the geographic range from Mexico south to Peru and Brazil. Since most of the new species have been found in South America, one wonders if the notion of an "incursion" will have to reverse direction. Or, perhaps, it is the botanists who have invaded new territory, not the orchids. After all, it is the orchidists who are not endemic to the area - the orchids have long been there.

Trichocentrum pulchrum Poepp. & Endl., Nov. Gen. Sp. Pl. 2: 11 (1836).

Fig. 4. Trichocentrum pulchrum.

Fig. 5. Trichocentrum pulchrum, plate 115 in Eduardus Poeppig and Stephano Endlicher, Nova Genera ac Species Plantarum vol. 2.

Sometimes digging into the old literature on orchids leads to a visual jackpot. For Trichocentrum pulchrum (Fig. 4), this was the case. In addition to the dense Latin technical description, a hand-colored plate of the specimen was included (Fig. 5). Most orchid descriptions are terse, technical Latin descriptions in alpha-numeric black and white. Finding a drawing or painting is always a pleasant surprise and a treat. In this case, there is also a small oddity. If one compares the depiction in the stamp to that in the Poeppig image, the curious thing is the position of the labellum in the latter image. It is as if the artist could not tell which way was up for the flower - perhaps the result of drawing a collected specimen without the context of the tree to which it would normally have been anchored. It is probably good to remember that, while beautiful, many of these 19th-century drawing and paintings of orchids were the result of much artistic interpretation. While usually inspired by a plant specimen, those same specimens had little reason to be at their best. They were lucky to have survived being shipped from the tropics back to temperate England.

Psychopsis sanderae (Rolfe) Lückel & Braem, Orchidee (Hamburg) 33: 6 (1982).

Fig. 6. Psychopsis sanderae (Oncidium sanderae).

Of the five species depicted on this set of Peruvian stamps, Psychopsis sanderae (Fig. 6) is the only one to have suffered a name change so far (in my experience, a botanic rarity). In this case, the reason for the name change was that the various species of Psychopsis, while related to those of Oncidium, were considered distinct because of differences in the floral structures and the chromosome numbers of the plants. This particular name change was fortunate in that it became nicely descriptive: Psychopsis means resembling a butterfly (at least in Greek) - something that the illustration in the stamp shows rather well. It seems that butterflies also see the similarities. In fact, one botanist has noted that he has observed male Heliconius butterflies attacking the flowers, apparently trying to drive the competition from their territories. (Pridgeon, et al., "Pyschopsis", 331-2)


My primary critic has complained that this article is "a tease", that it raises more questions than it answers. Certainly she is right in that one could follow any one of these five profiles much deeper in many directions - botanical, historical, geographical,... perhaps even literary. For better or worse, that is the nature of orchids and much else in the world. For every answer one finds, a dozen new questions arise and there is only so much time to explore.


Bentham, Georgius, Plantas Hartwegianas (London: 1839-57).

"Biodiversity Heritage Library." http://www.biodiversitylibrary.org/

"Botanicus" http://www.botanicus.org/

"New Plants" in The Gardeners' Chronicle and Agricultural Gazette (London: 21 Aug 1869), 775.

Poeppig, Eduardus and Stephano Endlicher, Nova Genera ac Species Plantarum vol. 2 (Leipzig: 1838).

Pridgeon, Alec, et al. "Gongora", in Genera Orchidacearum vol. 5 (Oxford: 2009), 413-416.

Pridgeon, Alec, et al. "Mormolyca", in Genera Orchidacearum vol. 5 (Oxford: 2009), 177-180.

Pridgeon, Alec, et al. "Pyschopsis", in Genera Orchidacearum vol. 5 (Oxford: 2009), 330-333.

Pridgeon, Alec, et al. "Trichocentrum", in Genera Orchidacearum vol. 5 (Oxford: 209), 373-377.

Reinikka, Merle A. A History of the Orchid (Portland, OR: 1995).

Schweinfurth, Charles, "An Unrecorded Orchid Genus from Peru", in American Orchid Society Bulletin 13 (November 1944), 196-8.

"Swiss Orchid Foundation." http://orchid.unibas.ch/

"World Checklist of Selected Plant Families." (2011). The Board of Trustees of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. Published on the Internet; http://www.kew.org/wcsp/

Copyright © 2011 Eric Olsen