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March 5, 2021

Ecology, justice and an enslaved vanilla pollinator

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This vanilla orchid, climbing two storeys into a Bangalow palm is about to burst into bloom. Photo Mary Gardner
This vanilla orchid, climbing two storeys into a Bangalow palm is about to burst into bloom. Photo Mary Gardner

The horticulturalist was astonished to hear that my vanilla orchid was flowering in Northern Rivers. Two years ago, propped up at the base of a tall Bangalow palm, this lone plant burst into maturity as a vine. Stem and leaves zigzag two stories up the trunk, aerial roots cling tightly. This October, as are other orchids throughout the subtropics, it’s developing flower buds on eight different bracts.

Once, it was a dull potted plant. It shifted house with me three times before it found what it wanted. Touched with some romantic fever about tropical flowers and flavours, I have cared for it simply to see what it could become.

Something comes together in each living being that sets patterns of growth and prompts actions. The vanilla orchid originates in Mesoamerica, but in other places right around the world, it still grows like a vine of the rainforest. Mainstream western science would say ‘that’s because of DNA’. True, heredity is involved. Often people interpret this to mean that DNA is a deterministic blueprint. The DNA is all a living being can possibly be.

But the context is as important or even more so. This vanilla orchid only began to grow when time and place meshed properly. So far, thinking about the situations has provoked a new discipline of scientific study. Epigenetics: the study of outside influences on the DNA itself which controls the timed activation of various genes. These changes, for better or worse, can affect physical development and behaviour. They can be inherited; received from ancestors and passed on to future generations.

There is still more to context. This is often considered as another discipline of science. Ecology: the study of relationships between every type of organisms and all their environments. Vanilla orchids are the only orchids that produce the edible fruit, the famous vanilla pod. Ecological studies reveal that successful pollination depends on a small Mesoamerican bee known as Melipona or on hummingbirds such as the ruby-throats.

In spite of this mutually beneficial and necessary relationship, the majority of commercial production of vanilla pods is in Madagascar and Indonesia. Understanding this phenomena requires knowledge of botany as well as political ecology. The vanilla flower must be pollinated and the female part receiving the pollen is covered over by a flap of tissue.

The conquistador Cortes brought the plant to Europe, where it never produced pods. Not until the early 1800s would French botanist Charles Morren identify the animals that could accomplish the pollination. At the time, the French colonised the islands of Réunion and Mauritius. Horticulturist Ferreol Bellier –Beaumont was hoping to find a way to hand-pollinate the orchid.

In the day-to-day life of the times, Beaumont was given Edmond Albius, an indigene child of an enslaved woman who died during birth. The young slave helped him in the gardens. In 1841, Beaumont was surprised when his vanilla orchids produced pods and delighted when 12 year old Albius showed him how he accomplished pollination. He used a blade of grass to lift the flap, then used his thumb to smear the male pollen on the female stigma. The youth taught this skill to others. The French plantation owners quickly developed the industry and made fortunes. Although when slavery was finally outlawed in 1848, Albius was famous for his work, he was left impoverished. He died in 1880.

Such knowledge has spawned another field: ecological justice. I ponder, looking out the window at the top of the vine on the palm tree. The flowers are beyond reach, so hand pollination seems hopeless. Some flying and crawling insects seem very interested in the buds. Knowledge suggests they may get a taste of pollen but won’t accomplish the deed.

But living beings do the unexpected. They learn – at the levels of molecular biology, epigenetics and ecology as well as politics and justice. For us people, learning also requires deliberate effort, hand pollination so to speak, in a context of both freedom and support. Story by story, we are alerted to what needs to be, what could or couldn’t be. What may happen next for this orchid? I’ll keep you posted.



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  1. Lovely story Mary. You will enjoy, if you haven’t already
    The Invisible History of the Human Race by Christine Kenneally A Black Inc book.
    cheers Jenny G

  2. Lovely story mary.
    You will enjoy, if you haven’t already the book The Invisible History of the Human Race
    by Christine Kennealy pub. Black Inc Melb.
    cheers Jenny G


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