When people talk about voyaging to the ends of the earth, Madagascar is one of those mythical, exotic, far-flung places that qualifies as an ‘end.’ It almost seems to fall off the globe, hanging as it does near the edge of southeastern Africa. About three times the size of Missouri, Madagascar is the world’s fourth-largest island. Separated from the mainland by the Mozambique Channel, less than 300 miles wide, one would think that this small chunk of land broke off of the larger continent to set sail into the Indian Ocean on its own. One reaches Madagascar today by an easy four-hour flight out of Johannesburg, South Africa.

Madagascar is a magical place, filled with kind people, odd animals and fascinatingly peculiar plants. There are so many rare endemic species on the island that it inspired Norman Meyers to coin the phrase ‘biodiversity hot spots’ in 1988 to describe such biologically rich and fleetingly fragile places. Madagascar has more than 13,000 different species of flowering plants, including some 900 species of orchids. With more than 90 percent of these species growing only on this island and nowhere else in the world (botanists call them endemic plants), this hot spot is of particular botanical interest.

Madagascar—the centerpiece of the 2013 Missouri Botanical Garden Orchid Show

One begins the long journey to hunt for orchids in Madagascar by entering the Garden’s Ridgway Visitor Center. You immediately leave St. Louis behind and enter into a wild world filled with jewel-like blossoms, arching trees and moist, tropical air. Showcased in the entry hall at the beginning of the show are many specimens of rare and endemic Malagasy orchids. One of the most unusual is the white-flowered, star-like Anagraecum, an endemic orchid with an unusually long nectar spur. This floral appendage may reach a foot in length and is filled with sweet nectar to attract insects, which bring pollen needed for fertilization and seed set. In 1862, when Charles Darwin first observed preserved specimens of Anagraecum flowers, he postulated that there must be a special pollinator with a very long proboscis to reach deeply into the tube for nectar. About 50 years later, scientists recorded the hawk moth that pollinates it, Xanthopan morganii, and discovered it did indeed have a proboscis just as long as the spur. Blanche Wagner, the Garden’s head orchid grower, was delighted that one of the Garden’s Anagraecum specimens cooperated in blooming just in time for the opening of the show.

The centerpiece of this year’s orchid show is the Malagasy village. Thatched huts with locally handcrafted items and tools are integrated into the landscape. The Malagasy people are extremely talented in their use of local materials for crafts and utility items. Mats and baskets are made from palm fronds or wetland rushes, while fabrics are hand-woven from a local raw silk. Rattans are crafted into furniture, palm raffias into hats and handbags.

MBG in Madagascar

In the early 1970s, then-Garden president Peter Raven decided that two botanically important places should receive priority in Garden research planning. They were New Caledonia in the South Pacific and Madagascar. Both had extremely high numbers of interesting and rare plants and were islands where conservation efforts were badly needed. Early botanical research in Madagascar was done by aroid specialist Dr. Tom Croat and the late Dr. Al Gentry. Political problems interrupted work in Madagascar in 1979, but things improved enough by the early 1980s for full-time scientists to resume work on the island. That program, begun 40 years ago, has continued and become the largest off-campus research center of the MBG family and has a staff of more than 100 native Malagasy researchers.

The plants collected in Madagascar are catalogued in an impressive database. Much like Google Earth, you can zoom in to see where specimens have been collected. This enables scientists to use the taxonomic base to conduct threat analysis studies and to identify especially rich and fragile areas in need of special protection. Garden observations have been used to help determine the boundaries for a number of new protected areas.

Conservation and Survival

Conservation is a major concern and the complete MBG agenda includes working to find alternative sources of livelihood for the people who turn to the forests for fuel, lumber and food. Depletion of forests and other natural vegetation for basic survival, clearing land for cattle or rice fields and illegal logging all impact the fragile ecosystems and national environmental capital. To this end, the Garden collaborates with the Scandellaris Center of the Olin Business School at Washington University in St. Louis, and works with students to develop sustainable ways for villagers improve their incomes, standards of nutrition and health, and to live in better balance with the land.

Madagascar is a country in environmental distress. More than 80 percent of the original vegetation has been removed or badly damaged, although a series of protected areas and patches of remaining vegetation do still hold remnants of most of the species that were there originally. Many of them are represented by only a few individuals. When wealth is measured by numbers of cattle and non-sustainable dry-land rice is grown on slopes in newly cleared forest areas, assaults on the environment continue. Ninety percent of the people in Madagascar depend extensively on these forests and other natural vegetation for food, firewood for heating and cooking, medicines and crafts. Their needs are so great that the forests are being damaged continuously and degraded with the loss of sustainability. The population now, about 22 million people, is expected to more than double by 2050.

Admiring Orchids in Missouri

You don’t have to go as far afield as Madagascar to admire the special beauty of orchids. You can see some flowers any time of year in the rainforest environment of the Garden’s Climatron. There also are many orchids to be enjoyed at the Sophia M. Sachs Butterfly House at Faust Park. The Butterfly House also has a kid-magnet display of Madagascar hissing cockroaches in the main hall. Or, you might visit the most famous animal inhabitants of the country, lemurs, at the Saint Louis Zoo.

Exotic orchids may have a certain foreign cachet, but we have some pretty special beauties of our own right here. Dr. George Yatskievych, curator at the Garden and director of the Flora of Missouri Project notes that there are 36 species of wild, native orchids in Missouri. My favorite genus, Cypripedium, is commonly called the lady’s slipper orchid, as the stunning flowers resemble soft satin slippers. We have three species in Missouri: C. candidum, the white lady’s slipper; C. parviflorum, the yellow lady’s slipper; and my special favorite—the magnificent C. reginae, the showy pink lady’s slipper. It is difficult to find them in the wild today as zealous plant collectors in earlier times stripped them from the wild to transplant into gardens. Unfortunately, our native orchids do not transplant well, so you should never dig a wild orchid up for any purpose. Almost all wild-collected terrestrial orchids die soon after transplanting. Flowers should not be picked either, as they are needed for future seed production. Some well-protected colonies are still around and are an awe-inspiring scene in early spring.

Travel and Research on the Island

If you have an intense curiosity about biological diversity and want to feel the sharp edges on the weird, Seussian trees and shrubs of the spiny forest, or to be mesmerized by the engaging, intense golden eyes of a wild ringtail, a trip to Madagascar could be a lifelong dream. If you would rather have the armchair version, go see the special Malagasy orchids at this year’s show. And read up on Darwin and the intertwined relationships between plants and their pollinators. We can store the plant seeds in the freezer to prevent their complete extinction, but how do we keep the hawk moth without its special food source? It is not always the plants in our own gardens that matter the most. We must raise our sights to support the care, preservation and protections of the unique and wild here and abroad.

2013 Orchid Show at the Missouri Botanical Garden

$5 adults, free for Garden members and children 2 and younger

Now through March 31; 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily

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