Preserving Madagascar's
Orchid Heritage

A French National Collection has been established to preserve these rare orchids.
Text by Christopher N. Herndon

Reprinted from the February 1998 issue of Orchids -- The magazine of the American Orchid Society

IN A BROAD AND ECLECTIC field such as orchid cultivation, there are some specialized collections that serve in the introduction, appreciation and propagation of species from a particular area. In December 1996, one such outstanding collection was awarded the rank of French National Collection by the French Conservatory of Specialized Botanical Collections. The recipient of the prestigious honor is the collection of Madagascar orchids of Marcel Lecoufle.

Born in 1913, Lecoufle is a member of a distinguished family of orchid growers in France. His grandfather, Henri Vacherot, started growing orchids in 1886, in Boissy Saint Leger, an area outside Paris. Lecoufle began working in the firm of Vacherot & Lecoufle in 1931 and became an associate member in 1938. In 1947, he parted from the family firm to start his own nursery. Shortly after its establishment, Marcel Lecoufle Orchidees had already expanded in cultivation to include some nonorchidaceous exotic plants such as bromeliads and carnivorous plants. He was awarded an honorary membership in the American Bromeliad Society, and authored an important book on carnivorous plants and their cultivation. In 1959, he received fifth prize at the first Floralies of Paris, an important horticultural show visited by both Queen Elizabeth 1I and President Charles de Gaulle, and won first prize five years later.

Lecoufle's first introduction to the fascinating orchids of Madagascar occurred in 1931 when he attended the Colonial Exhibition in Paris. Among the visitors was a gentleman named Edmond Francois, who in 1937 wrote a dissertation entitled Plantes de Madagascar that greatly intrigued Lecoufle. Much later, Lecoufle was invited to Madagascar and the nearby islands of Mauritius and Reunion by his friend Sir Raymond Hein, a resident of Mauritius, with whom he had kept close association through long correspondence.

On his first trip to the islands, Lecoufle made contact with two botanists, Dr. Pierre Peyrot and Jean Bosser of the Scientific Office Research of Oversea Territories, both of whom contributed substantially to our knowledge and understanding of the flora of Madagascar and its islands. From Lecoufle’s close association with Bosser and the Museum of Natural History in Paris, he has become an associate member of the museum.

Lecoufle credits Peyrot for giving him an appreciation of "the huge Madagascan island with so many contrasts, areas of showers or dryness, extreme temperatures hot or cold, altitudes from sea level to 9,185 feet."

Lecoufle has traveled to the big island four times -- in 1967, 1973, 1980 and 1983. A particularly memorable trip to Madagascar was when he was invited by Dr. Maisongrosse to conduct research not only on orchids but also on a new and rare species of tropical pitcher plant, Nepenthes masoalensis, which is endemic to the Masoala massif. On this expedition not only numerous plants of N. masoalensis were found, hut also many species from the orchidaceous genera Aerangis, Aeranthes, Angraecum, Bulbophyllum, Cymbidiella, Grammangis, Eulophia, Jumellea and Oeoniella.

The angraecoids and other orchids of Madagascar have been gaining substantial attention and popularity over the last 20 years. Lecoufle's nursery was the first orchid firm to actively import and sell plants from Madagascar. He was able to import successfully through close collaboration with his supplier, Remi Andriamaharo, a former president of the Madagascan Orchid Society. In addition to introducing many superb species for the first time into cultivation, Lecoufle undertook a program of propagation to ensure against the extinction of the plants. His propagation of Angraecum longicalcar stands out as an example of the paramount importance of his breeding program of Madagascan species. This Angraecum is notable because it boasts a spur length of 16 inches, the longest of any known orchid. A hawk-moth pollinator with a proboscis nearly as long as the spur must exist in the same locality as the orchid, which is restricted to a small area around Lake Itasy in Madagascar. The originally small population has, through overcollection, been depleted nearly to extinction. Fortunately, it was saved for future generations through the active propagation program of Lecoufle's nursery and now this spectacular orchid can be found in numerous angraecoid collections in Europe, America and elsewhere.

Lecoufle has authored several articles on the subject of Madagascar and its orchids in journals such as the AOS Bulletin and The Orchid Review and has presented numerous lectures on these orchids, including one at the 5th World Orchid Conference in Long Beach in 1966. An accomplished photographer for 69 years, Lecoufle has taken first-rate photographs of both plants in their native habitat and of flowering plants in his own collection. His spectacular photographs of Madagascan orchids have not only accompanied his own articles, but have also appeared in the articles and books of other authors. He is a strong advocate of 3D photography and has introduced many amateur orchid photographers to this photographic medium through his work with both the French Stereoscopic Society and the French Photographic Society.

Lecoufle's current collection of Madagascan orchids consists of more than 8,000 plants representing at least 85 species from Madagascar and the nearby islands. Moreover, there are 2,000 more seedlings in vitro. Included among his collection are some hybrids and several unusual cultivars of species, such as a variegated Angraecum sesquipedale and a green-lipped Angraecum eburueum. His library contains several old and rare manuscripts of botanical literature and art featuring Madagascan orchids, including a hand-drawn copy of the plates from Du Petit Thouars' Histoire particuliere des plantes orchiddes recueillies sur les trois iles australes d'Afrique, de France, de Bourbon et de Madagascar

In addition to his important work on the introduction of Madagascan species into cultivation, Lecoufle grows numerous other orchid species and enjoys an international reputation as a hybridizer. Continuing with his family's five-generation legacy in the orchid industry, his firm is now managed by his daughter Genevieve Bert and his granddaughter Isabelle Bert. Marcel Lecoufle continues to give lectures and warmly receives visitors at his greenhouses outside of Paris. []


Lecoufle, Marcel. 1996-1997. Les Orchidees de Madagascar et leur culture. Hommes & Plantes--Revue trimestrielle du Conservatoire Francais des Collections Vegetales Specialisees (CCVS). 20:21-28.

Christopher N. Herndon is a frequent contributor to Orchids magazine. He last wrote about colorful angraecoids in the August 1997 issue of Orchids. 11044 Red Rock Drive, San Diego, California 92131.

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