Ph.D. Student Simon Verlynde Is 'Hooked on Orchids'

Angraecum polyphemus (Credit: Johan Hermans) and Simon Verlynde (Credit: Verlynde)

By Beth Harpaz

Simon Verlynde was a teenager when he first developed an interest in orchids. Now he’s a Ph.D. student in the Plant Sciences subprogram of The Graduate Center’s Biology program. The program is affiliated with The New York Botanical Garden, providing students opportunities to work with researchers there. 

Verlynde’s path to CUNY has taken many twists and turns, including abandoning a plan to become an airplane mechanic, a stint working in a Paris flower market, and visits to the tropical forests of Madagascar. 

From the time he was a child growing up in his native France, Verlynde was always interested in the natural world. He collected magazines and books about dinosaurs, he became obsessed with insects, and he loved a French TV show about biodiversity in remote places starring Nicolas Hulot, who later became France’s minister for ecological transition. “I wished I could have his job,” Verlynde said. 

At age 17, Verlynde went to a summer camp in Madagascar, was awed by the tropical environment, and discovered orchids. “I was hooked,” he said. But at the time, Verlynde was in a technical high school, training to become an airplane mechanic like his father. He tried switching to botany, but lacked the necessary biology credits. So, he pursued an associate’s degree in horticulture instead, then worked in an orchid shop in a Paris flower market for two years. 

He eventually got a biology degree, and then a master’s degree in tropical plant biodiversity and environments. The master’s program included a semester researching orchids in Cameroon. From there, he spent five years working for the Missouri Botanical Garden’s world-renowned Living Orchid Collection, which protects endangered species of orchids in continental Africa and Madagascar. The plants are cultivated in shade houses as close as possible to their natural habitats by local botanists and others. Once they flower, preserved samples are shipped to the U.S. for identification. Verlynde helped identify thousands of orchid samples collected from the eastern escarpment forests of the island and helped to assess their “extinction risk” — in other words, how threatened the species are in their natural habitat. 

Orchids can’t be properly identified unless they’re in flower, though, and that can take years. “Mature plants will usually flower within the year of collection,” Verlynde said, but “younger plants, or even mature plants that have a harder time adapting to cultivation, might take two to three years to bloom. … So yes, patience is required.” 

Verlynde recently co-authored a paper that grew out of that work. He had shared findings with another researcher, Johan Hermans, and “in the spirit of collaboration, if we both identified something as new, the first to describe the species would invite the second to be a co-author,” he said. (Hermans is first author on the paper and Verlynde is second author.) 

Verlynde always wanted to complete his academic training with a doctorate, and The Graduate Center’s partnership with The New York Botanical Garden was a perfect fit. His dissertation will be on the “systematics, biogeography, and evolution” of Angraecum, a genus of Afro-Malagasy orchids that includes a species studied by Darwin. Once he has his degree, he hopes to “carry on the work on helping to expand knowledge and conserve Malagasy orchids.”

And if you’ve ever bought those small, inexpensive orchids at retailers like Trader Joe’s, but couldn’t get them to re-bloom once the initial flowers died, Verlynde has this advice: Put them close to a sunny window, but not in full sunlight. Water generously (he places his plants under running water for 10-20 seconds), but then leave them to dry for a week. Make sure no water is sitting in the bottom of the pot, as the plants are prone to rot. Less water is better than overwatering, he warns. 

And just like with the Madagascar orchids, be prepared to wait: “They usually take more than a year to flower again.”

Beth Harpaz is the editor of SUM. Follow her on Twitter at @literarydj.

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Submitted on: JAN 12, 2021

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