pierre laszlo

Medinilla waterhousei (Melastomataceae) Tagimaucia.

Plant of the month (©Pierre Laszlo, all rights reserved)

Medinilla waterhousei (Melastomataceae)

Whenever an historian writes about people and events, the account builds on the twin calls for periodization and contextualization. As an example of the latter, take the episode of the French Chambon-sur-Lignon inhabitants sheltering hundreds of Jews during World War II and, in so doing, saving their lives. The geographical context for that heroic tale is an isolated small town on a promontory. The historical and cultural contexts are a predominantly Protestant population having suffered from persecution two centuries earlier — after revocation of the Nantes Edict and soldiers of the Sun King (Louis XIV) hunted and massacred Huguenots during the 1680s. 
If historians are careful to research the context of any of their stories, natural historians feel a similar need. There is perhaps no better example than this little orchid, that has become the national flower of Fiji. Out of several hundred islands in the Fiji archipelago, it has the most restricted of contexts, being found only on Taveuni. This island is the product of late Quaternary vulcanism. Its mountain range contains craters, lava flows, layers of surface ash and scoria cones. The last eruption occurred 2,000 years ago.
In this formerly devastated landscape, Tagaumacia exists in a tiny niche, at altitudes between 600 and 1,250 m in a highland rainforest. A species threatened by human activities (logging) in addition to natural disasters (cyclones and volcanic activity), the striking beauty of its flowers makes it a jewel: white petals and filaments; rich purple anthers; yellow basal lobes, and inflorescence branches and bracts scarlet or deep red in color. 
These flowers remind me of other treasures, likewise to be admired in their natural habitat. For instance, the frescoes that Fra Angelico painted in several cells of the monastery of San Marco in Florence.
An epiphyte, it is a vine creeping along the canopy of the forest which it relies upon only for support When in bloom, from October to December, the flowers hang down in 30-cm long clusters. 
Its common name is Tagimaucia, after a Fijian young lady shedding tears, her father having forbidden her from marrying the boy she loved, a probably spurious tale concocted by nineteenth-century missionaries. 
As a genus, Medinilla includes nearly 200 flowering plants, native to the tropics from Africa (two species) east through Madagascar (about 70 species) and southern Asia to the western Pacific Ocean islands. The genus bear the name of José de Medinilla y Pineda, governor of the Mariana Islands in 1820. The species was named after Walter Lawry Waterhouse (1887 –1969), an Australian agricultural scientist who sometime during the 1906-1910 period was headmaster at the Methodist Mission Boys High School at Daviulevu in Fiji.