Thursday, December 25, 2008

Parrot flower

Impatiens psittacina is a scientifically described species from several small geographic regions in Asia including northern Thailand, Myanmar (formerly Burma) and one neighboring state in India. Some internet sources claim Impatiens psittacina is found in Vietnam, the Himalayas and neighboring countries but that cannot be confirmed in science. The Thai's have a name for Impatiens psittacina and call it "Dork Nok Khaew" which is literally translated as "parrot bird flower" (Dork or Dok = flower, Nok = bird, and Khaew = green or the word for parrot. However, this clarification came in June 2008 from Steve Myers who resides in Thailand, "I am fluent in Thai (read and write as well), so I thought I would try to clear up a small inaccuracy in your translation of the Thai name. On your webpage you write "Literally translated that says: Dork or Dok = flower, Nok = bird, and Khaew = green or the word for parrot. So the translation would be Flower Bird Parrot." He continues, "The Thai word "khaew" used in the name of the flower means either glass or crystal or a similar substance or it means something precious. The Thai word for green is usually transliterated as "kieow". (It's probably a little hard to know from looking those spellings, but the words sound - and are written - completely different in Thai.) I suppose you could break "nok khaew" apart into Bird Precious or Bird Crystal or something like that, but Thai generally doesn't work like that. Almost all the names of birds in Thai include "nok" - the general word for bird - and one or two other words that complete the name of the bird. The bird cannot be referred to by a shorter verion without the word "nok". So, the Thai for parrot is simply an indivisible "nok khaew". Steve also indicated he and his spouse would be searching for Impatiens psittacina in Doi Chiang Dao, a national forest area between their home and Chiang Mai.

Julius' research had located several people who had visited Thailand, met with the photographer who posted the now Impatiens psittacina, the Rare Thailand Parrot Floweramous internet photographs and knew a great deal about the rare Impatiens species. Julius had also tracked down an Impatiens expert in the United Kingdom, Ray Morgan, who was able to furnish the sought after original botanical publication containing the description, a drawing of Impatiens psittacina, and other helpful information. There is a link at the top of this page to an article by Ray which includes information on Impatiens psittacina.

The plant was originally published in 1901 in the Curtis Botanical Journal Magazine, Tab 7809. The plant was credited as having been discovered in the Shan States of Upper Burma in 1899 by a British officer named A.H. Hildebrand who was working on a new boundary agreement between Thailand and Burma, then known as Siam. In that publication botanist Joseph Dalton Hooker described the species as resembling a "cockatoo suspended by a string from its shoulders". (You can read Hooker's entire published description below).
Hooker lived from 1817-1911 and is the botanist of record who gave this species its name. The Latin name Hooker chose, "psittacina", fittingly means "parrot like". Hooker examined specimens grown at the Royal Botanical Garden Kew in Britain but did his original work on the plant in India. It is however unclear whether Hooker drew his work from a live specimen or preserved flowers. Hooker mentions in his description plants seen at the Kew in London were grown from wild collected seed furnished by A.H. Hildebrand. The plants in England did not produce seed, possibly due to the lack of natural pollinators or by a lack of understanding at the time as to how Impatiens species can be artificially pollinated. Although unknown for certain, the seed is likely to have a long viability since in 1901 mail was done only by boat, foot and horse. However, some Impatiens experts today appear to doubt the species has a long viability.
Few people realize that nature has a unique method of pollinating species while keeping a strain pure, and pollination is required to produce seeds. Almost all plants produce a unique pheromone. A pheromone is similar to a perfume designed to attract a particular insect or animal to do the work of pollination. And in most cases, that pheromone smells to the male of an insect species like a female ready to mate! That is why there are very few orchid hybrids found in the wild! The male is drawn only to a single species and won't land on any other. If you don't have the correct pollinator, you don't get seeds!
While considering the possible pollinators for this species, Invertebrate Ecologist/Taxonomist D. Christopher Rogers, who studies insects, made this observation, "looking at the plant, and the position of the anthers (arcing over the flower aperture) and the position of the nectar tube (high and down curled), I would guess that a bird or a bat pollinates the plant. It is possible a moth or butterfly with a very long “tongue” does the job, or maybe a wasp, but the size of the flower leads me towards a vertebrate. That being said the next thing to consider is the form and coloration of the flower. It could be a wasp that would come upon a bird in order to capture parasitic flies or heteropterans with which to provision its eggs." Julius Boos tends to believe the pollinator is more likely to be a "large hairy bumble-bee.... with large, wide and hairy heads and bodies, seemingly perfect to collect and distribute pollen." Julius believes that insect "would have tongues more than long enough to reach the pollen source." He continued, "The flower also appears to possess and provides a basal 'petal' as a 'landing platform' for a bee to land and hold on to while feeding!" Although both Christopher and Julius are obviously forced to speculate, due to the lack of documented information, it appears regardless of which of these vertebrate, or invertebrate, species does the natural job in nature it is highly unlikely we have that specific pollinator in North America. As a result, this impatiens species is not easily caused to reproduce in captive growth.
Julius also managed to find information about the Thai grower who posted the now famous photographs on the internet (all with text in the Thai language). A Thai native, he is also an experienced photographer and plant grower. The flower, which resembles a multi-colored flying parrot, has an overall "blue" flower with reds and other accent colors. Sources that preferred to remain unnamed described the flower to another rare impatiens grower as "somewhat difficult" to cultivate. The Thai gentleman also described the Parrot Flower as possibly not being tuberous. The flower is said by the Thai source to be seen in the wild in several color combinations and tuberous plants were not seen in the "blue" colored flower but mainly in the pink and yellow. Even those were reported to be "tricky to grow" in spite of having tubers.

According to an informed source in Thailand, the plant needs moist humid rain forest conditions. Far wetter than can be found in the majority of North America. An extremely knowledgeable source who is familiar with the plant has recently provided information the plant is known to grow in limestone soil with a pH that is higher than normal. That is likely the explanation for the "blue" coloration due to a botanical phenomenon known as "anthocyanins" (a condition where water soluble pigments appear red to blue) depending on the soil pH. The plant is apparently truly rare in nature and is not the "invasive vine" some on the internet who are not truly familiar with the species have speculated. As for the now famous Thailand Parrot Flower photos, those were taken by the Thai grower of a plant collected in 2001 near Chiang Mai, N. Thailand. But like many flower species, this impatiens has a limited blooming season. The blooming season for Impatiens psittacina in Thailand is October and November. And this impatiens grows tall!

Impatiens psittacina Facts:
Size: Plant grows to app. 6 feet (1.8) meters
Leaf : Broad, sharply pointed, to 2 1/2 inches (6 cm)
Flower size: App. 2 inches (5cm)
Stem thickness: To 1/2 inch (1.5cm)
Bloom season: October/November in Thailand
Growing conditions: Tropical, humid, moist


In his scientific description (bottom of this page) Hooker describes the species as being substantially less than one meter tall. That is likely due to the fact he never actually saw the plant in the wild and based his writings on the observations of an untrained individual, Mr. Hildebrand. Unlike the Impatiens you grow in your yard, according to the cover a Thai garden magazine (see info right), this plant grows to almost 6 feet tall (1.8 meters)! The species has a thick 1/2 inch (1.5cm) stem but normal 2 1/2 inch (6cm) leaves. We have no accurate dimensions on the bloom but a photo comparison of the flower to a leaf indicates the flower would be approximately 2 inches (5cm). Hooker's description (below) differs slightly from that when he states the plant is 1.5 to 2 feet tall (less than 60cm). Hooker admits he never actually saw the species in the wild and was basing his description partially on second hand information provided by a non-scientist.

This rare plant is not the attractive small Impatiens plant normally sold for landscaping. This Impatiens is tall like a bad weed and apparently will not survive without moist, humid, tropical, rain forest conditions. The flower is beautiful but even if you could keep it alive is not suited for the average front yard garden unless you like weeds, high humidity, and lots of rain! You likely would not like the plant if you found one! (See more photos on page 2.)

So why do so many people believe this rare Impatiens species does not exist? It appears even those who are otherwise knowledgeable about Impatiens don't know very much about the very rare species in the genus. I recently ran across a very nice website that sells and specializes in Impatiens. On it, I found this quote: "To begin with, there are approximately 36 species of impatiens in the world". I make no claim to be an Impatiens expert, but based on my limited research just trying to locate Impatiens psittacina, I knew that statement could not be correct! A check of the International Plant Names Index (Royal Botanic Garden, Kew in London) done in April, 2008 reveals there are more than 1.300 Impatiens species in their records! Many quite rare!
Impatiens psittacina, the Rare Thailand Parrot FlowerEven more important, if the species does not truly exist, someone needs to explain that to the scientists who compiled the scientific text Flora of India Volume 4 as well as the people of Thailand who have seen it, photographed it, and furnished all the photos on this and the following pages. The species has been well documented in both instances. The information in the box above came from the cover of a Thai gardening magazine! Still, I regularly receive email saying "I don't believe it". Posts on the internet can be found as recently as July, 2007 claiming it is a fake.
I once received an email from a person who still believes the plant is a PhotoShop workup of Impatiens arguta. There is a fellow in Canada who was spreading the word I personally "pasted" the photos of a "fake" flower into the botanical drawings. There are still several individuals in Canada who post on a variety of sites this species is not rare, can be bought at dozens of websites, and grows all over Canada! But not one link telling you where to go buy one has ever been posted! Not one! I've also received complaints the drawings are not a "perfect match" to the photographs. Linnaean nomenclature, the system in use at the time Hooker wrote his description, was far from perfect. It permitted many species to be described only from preserved or cultivated specimens. There is a possibility, even though Hooker saw the plant in a botanical garden in India, these were drawn more than 100 years ago from dried specimens. It is also highly likely the inks have faded so the colors no longer match. But if you look closely the correct colors and details are still there!
Until recently, I had been led to believe by plant collectors in India the species did not occur in that country. Dr. John H. Wiersema, Ph.D., Curator of GRIN Taxonomy, (a part of the USDA) recently furnished this information to verify in fact the species can be found in only one portion of that country near the border with Myanmar (formerly Burma), In an email he said, "Our data comes from volume 4 of the Flora of India (P. K. Hajra et al. 1997), which indicates the species to occur in the state of Manipur in Northeast India, as our data also indicate. The state of Manipur borders northern Myanmar, where the plant is acknowledged by you to be native. This is some 400-500 miles removed from Calcutta, which has no importance in this context anyway, since Hooker never indicated the plant to be found there, but stated simply "I found no specimen at all resembling it in the Kew Herbarium, or in that of the Herbarium of the Royal Gardens, Calcutta". Hooker had collected in India (with Thomas Thomson) back in 1847-1851, but when he described I. psittacina he was already approaching 85 years of age, and is unlikely to have been to India in the few years previous after the introduction to Kew in 1899 of this species. His comment is in reference to the Herbarium of the Botanical Garden in Calcutta, from which he had the Impatiens specimens on loan for study and verification, not the Botanical Garden itself. In any case, there were no specimens of this species among this loaned material. To sum up, it is perfectly reasonable that the Flora of India is correct in indicating that this species occurs in Manipur state."

Like most Impatiens the plant is variable. Variations within plant species are quite common! Not all leaves and flowers of the same species are exactly alike. I can show you plants in my atrium where different specimens of the same species don't look exactly alike and have a variety of coloration and growth forms. Botanists and "plant nuts" disagree about those factors all the time which is one reason why so many plants have multiple scientific names, most of them now synonyms (same plant, other name)! Please note the Thai grower (who has a botanical background) stated there are color variations within this species in nature.

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