Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Ansellia africana - a robust African species

One of my Ansellias currently in bloom
Ansellia africana is probably one of those orchids that you will find in most collections here in South Africa. It is common and easily available commercially. Duckitt Orchid Nurseries produced large volumes of various cultivars which pretty much flooded the market. This was a good thing since the demand for this species seems to have been met at least locally. Sadly, even down here in the Cape we still get the odd travelling plant salesperson from Zimbabwe trying to sell poorly split pieces of wild specimens collected outside of South Africa. I asked one of these salespeople how it worked last year when he came knocking at our door at work. They remove large established plants from trees in Zimbabwe and crudely separate each individual cane, often with few or no roots attached. Several of these canes are forced onto holes drilled into dried stumps of Baboon's tail (Xerophyta retinervis). These plants seldom recover. Sometimes pieces of the plant are sold bare-root along with other orchids like Bulbophyllum scaberulum. Prices are cheap and variable but my question was of course how they get them through the border? Sadly these salespeople have no problem taking their wares across the border into South Africa. Our border officials are often poorly trained, corrupt, or simply don't care, or all of these. The salesperson I spoke with was quite proud of the fact that he has a friend working at the border who lets him through without any problems.
Ansellia africana in the wild is becoming rare as a result of illegal harvesting. This species is also used for medicinal purposes in traditional medicine and as a love charm. According to Wikipedia although Ansellia is considered a monotypic genus (only has a single species), it is made up of several species making up a species-complex ("Ansellia," Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Ansellia&oldid=603832571). However, this is not referenced on this page and I cannot find any published papers on the subject of a species-complex for Ansellia africana. So, for now it should still be considered just a single species. The species is quite variable though. Various colour forms are known and flowers generally appear to have less markings moving southwards into South Africa. The South African plants in KwaZulu Natal for example are nearly completely yellow in colour with very few markings on the petals. These plants are also more compact than the larger plants found further North.

Flowers usually appear in Spring or Summer although some plants are known to produce flowers in Winter. I have a large Winter bloomer and a very compact yellow variety that also flowers early. This species is quite easy to grow from seed in vitro. The seedlings however seem to be susceptible to rot when hardening off. Ansellia africana has been crossed with Graphorchis, Cymbidium, Catasetum, Cychnoches, Cyrtopodium, Eulophia, Galeandra and Promenaea. It should also breed with Grammatophyllum and Acrolophia. Pods usually take about 4-6 months before they are mature enough to use for green pod harvesting.

Plants are thirsty! I give mine plenty of water even in Winter and I fertilise with a high nitrogen fertiliser when in active growth. Plants can handle high light intensity but be careful when moving plants from a shaded position to a position that gets direct sunlight. Leaves can burn if not allowed to acclimatise to changes in light intensity. Light though is important for good flowering and flower spikes not only develop on the terminal end of the new canes but they can also develop from nodes lower down on the canes themselves which can make for an interesting display.

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