No place too wild for orchid buff

Writer of 6 orchid books loves to explore areas such as jungles and caves to find new, exotic species
Lee Xin En Straits Times 12 Nov 11;

MEET the Indiana Jones of orchids - Mr Peter O'Byrne.

While others may enjoy the luxury beach resorts of South-east Asia, the sprightly 56-year-old Englishman prefers to trek through sprawling jungles and wild terrain to look for exotic, never-seen-before orchids.

In fact, when it comes to choosing an area to explore, Mr O'Byrne says the more unexplored and remote it is, the better. He goes regularly to places that need three or four days' travelling to get to.

He has trekked in the hot sun for eight hours at a stretch, had spookily close encounters with tigers, narrowly escaped the wrath of angry loggers, and climbed almost vertical limestone hills.

His most awful trip? He had gone to explore caves in an unexplored area of Papua New Guinea with a friend, an expert on spiders. When the two friends unknowingly disturbed some ground-dwelling wasps, they were stung everywhere.

To make matters worse, that was when Mr O'Byrne realised that he was allergic to wasp stings. His heart started palpitating and his entire body began to swell. Unable to see through his swollen eyes, he made the journey back to civilisation with great difficulty, falling over just about every branch and rock, and even rolling down a hill.

But he says with a laugh: 'Yet I never lost my grip on the orchids I'd collected, not a single one! They were all in perfect condition!'

The episode demonstrates Mr O'Byrne's single- minded, fanatical love for orchids. It is a passion which has seen him discover and describe at least 150 new species of orchids in the past 25 years.

Not bad for someone who got into orchids 'by accident'.

While working in Swaziland as a chemistry teacher in an international school, he often took walks to admire the scenery.

He came across many orchids. To try and identify all those he saw, he bought a copy of eminent orchid specialist Joyce Stewart's Wild Orchids Of Southern Africa, but realised that about half of all the orchids he saw were not in the book.

He then wrote to the author to ask about the omissions.

Ms Stewart, a former president of the British Orchid Council who died this year, replied and told him that he had made wonderful discoveries, and encouraged him to make his own observations.

That was when Mr O'Byrne discovered that 'anybody can discover new orchids, as long as you're observant and persistent'.

He then moved to Papua New Guinea in 1988 because he realised that it was a hinterland for these flowers, with 'thousands of orchids all over the place, sprouting like weeds'.

He also found that there was no book about orchids in Papua New Guinea.

The sensible thing, he thought, was to write his first book. It took four years of research and drawings, and another two years of writing, before he produced the mammoth 584-page Lowland Orchids Of Papua New Guinea in 1994. It became a bestseller.

When he moved to Singapore that same year, he promised his family he would focus on being 'a good husband and a good daddy'.

But as luck would have it, on his first family vacation to Batam, he noticed an orchid in full bloom while his two daughters were playing on the beach.

He was hooked, spending the afternoon making botanical drawings of the orchid. This went on to become the beginnings of his next book, A To Z Of South East Asian Orchid Species.

The full-time chemistry teacher at the United World College of South-east Asia, who is not a formally trained botanist or scientist, has published six books on orchids.

He says that his orchid-hunting trips not only give him the chance to discover amazing new flowers, but have also made him realise there is a compulsion to these trips.

Mr O'Byrne, who will be speaking about his orchid discoveries on Monday morning at the World Orchid Conference, has no intention of slowing down, even though his wife has been telling him that he is too old to be gallivanting about.

He says: 'There're mountains of stuff out there! There're far more plants undescribed in this part of the world than there are described.'

Well aware of the dangers he has put himself in, he jokes: 'When you're doing these trips, and it's four in the morning, there's a tiger walking around your tent, there's a leech hanging onto an indescribable part of your body, you really ask yourself - what the hell am I doing here?

'But when you look back on these memories, alternative ways of spending your time just don't seem like that much fun. People nowadays lead very indoor lives. I think going out and adding to our knowledge of plants is what is most important for me.'

'And when you see a rare orchid in bloom,' he adds, thumping his fist on the table animatedly, 'you get one hell of a buzz out of it!'

Showcase of the best blooms
Lee Xin En Straits Times 12 Nov 11;

GET ready to feast your eyes on the world's most beautiful and highly prized orchids. Singapore has scored a rare coup: hosting an event widely seen as the Olympics of the Orchids for a second time.

The World Orchid Conference (WOC) returns to Singapore after 48 years, making the Republic only the second city after Miami to achieve the double. First held in 1951, the event, which takes place once every three years, is a must-attend one for orchid lovers.

This year's event to be held at the Sands Expo and Convention Centre promises to be the grandest in recent history. It is expected to attract at least 300,000 visitors, including nearly 1,000 foreign participants from more than 50 countries.

Singapore might seem to be an unlikely key player in the global orchid community, but the Republic has a rich orchid heritage, thanks to the Orchid Society of South-east Asia (Ossea). Founded in 1928, and based here, Ossea has about 400 members. Along with the National Parks Board (NParks), its members spearheaded the initiative to mount the latest successful bid for the WOC when it was held in Dijon, France, in 2005.

The Republic beat strong competitors such as South Africa and Taiwan. Ossea's credibility was crucial in winning the bid. The society has been quietly putting Singapore's orchids on the world map since the 1930s.

Ossea's founders, lawyer John Laycock, civil servant Emile Galistan and Professor Eric Holttum, then director of the Singapore Botanic Gardens, founded what was then known as the Malayan Orchid Society.

Back in 1929, Prof Holttum introduced the modern system of growing orchids in sterile flasks. Previously, germination was done mechanically, with seeds sprinkled around the orchids. It was a hit-and-miss affair. With flasks, the success rate for germination was much higher.

This method caught on in the local orchid community, giving rise to many an amateur grower trying out hybridisation, including legendary grower and Ossea fellow Syed Yusof Alsagoff, who has grown more than 250 hybrids.

Former Ossea president John Elliott says there have been about 2,500 hybrids created in Singapore since the 1960s, 'a most creditable and outstanding accomplishment for a city of our size'.

Singaporeans with green fingers have also been crucial in winning over the hearts of the WOC selection committee.

In 1954, Vanda Tan Chay Yan became the second hybrid from Singapore, after the national flower Vanda Miss Joaquim in 1897, to be awarded a First Class Certificate, the highest honour in orchid horticulture and equivalent to a gold medal, at the Chelsea Flower Show. Six years later, Ossea won the coveted gold medal for its competitive display at the Chelsea Flower Show. The wins put Singapore in the spotlight, helping its bid to host the 1963 WOC.

At the last WOC held in 2008 in Miami, NParks and Ossea clinched four awards, including the prestigious 'Best of Show' and a gold medal in the international display category. The team also clinched 26 other awards for individual plants at the event.

Singapore's hybrids have been significant to the nation's orchid export industry as they helped people to see that a cut flower export industry was possible for the country.

The hybrid Arachnis Maggie Oei, created by Mr Laycock in 1935, was the first Singapore orchid to become commercially successful. In 1960, the hardy orchid was flown around the world in 31/2 days to demonstrate its hardiness. Its success kick-started the export of cut orchids here.

Today, Singapore commands about 10.5 per cent of the global orchid trade, and is ranked third in the world in the export of fresh orchids, after the Netherlands and Thailand.

The chairman of the Orchid Business Cluster, Mr Too Peng San, is optimistic about the growth of the industry here. He says: 'There are many other countries which have lower land and labour cost but they don't produce orchids as well as we do. This shows that we still have an edge.'

He says he is looking forward to the WOC as it creates awareness of local orchids, and 'gives our local growers wonderful opportunities for exposure'.

Mr Elliott is also excited, saying: 'This WOC breaks with tradition in many ways, such as having the entire show landscaped, having a number of ancillary events like photography competitions. What set our proposal apart were a really good educational exhibit involving rare orchid drawings, and a documentary about pollination.'

Mr Alsagoff, who has been at several WOCs including the one held here in 1963, agrees, saying: 'As a whole, I think we've done much better this WOC than before with more participants and speakers. I expect to see some really nice and rare orchids from around the world.'