Cremastra appendiculata is a curious terrestrial orchid from the warmer woodlands of Japan, Korea, and China. It’s single leaf is green in winter and dormant in summer, thus revealing its membership in the Calypso tribe. It was one of the first orchids I encountered in Japan, and in time I found out that it is rather common and widespread.
In fall a single leaf comes up from a string of bulbs spanning an underground rhizome like oversized beads. The leaf is dark green and smooth, 20-35 cm long and 5-8 cm wide, and slightly glossy. It persists through the winter months until the plant is finished blooming sometime in early June at which point it dies down. Come spring the leaf is often covered in yellow blotches. I’m not sure the source of these, but most plants have them. This trait is also seen in another Japanese orchid, Phaius flavus. The unbranched flower raceme starts growth in early May and by late May the flowers are fully open. There are between 10-30 of them.
The flowers are elongate, approximately 4 cm long, only partially opened, and downward hanging. The sepals and petals are a greenish brown color and are suffused with purple. The lip is three lobed. It is almost a tube and elongate. The base of it along with the lateral lobes are bright purple/pink. The central lobe is pure white with some purple/pink markings. The column too is elongate; purple/pink at the base, white at the tip, and the pollina are bright yellow. “Alba” forms exist, that is, green flowered plants without any purple pigmentation. After flowering the leaf turns brown. If the flowers are pollinted, seed pods will form and mature by late summer, and split around November.
On Kyushu it is frequent in moist to wet woodlands in moderate to deep shade, often along streams, seeps, and sometimes even on the edges of small mountain rivers where it is subject to periodic flooding. It ranges throughout much of Japan from Kyushu to southern Hokkaido (Sapporo), and also Korea and China.
This species, like many of its relatives in the tribe Calypsoeae, is green in the winter months and dormant in the summer. It is much like the North American orchid Aplectrum hyemale in many respects, and I like to think of it as the Asian counterpart. I first found this curious and lovely plant in fall just after the new leaves had appeared. I knew it was an orchid, but I wasn’t at all sure which. They were growing on a mountain along a small stream deep in a mossy woods. I followed the plants through the winter and figured it to be an evergreen species, perhaps related to Phaius. Come spring I finally got to see its flowers one warm day in May, and it was then that I found out its true identity.
To appreciate the beauty of its flowers, you have to get down on your belly and pry one open. You will be rewarded with a gorgeous little star shaped flower with colors as vibrant as any hothouse Cattlaya. Still, it gives a different impression from above since it hides itself by hanging each flower towards the earth (the name, Cremastra, means “hanging down star”). It is common in the Fukuoka area, preferring to grow in undisturbed woods along streams, however from time to time I find it in tree plantations. Most often you’ll see it in lose groups, but occasionally there are spectacular clumps like the one in the picture.
The Japanese name, saihairan was a bit confusing to me at first. I knew that ran meant orchid, but I had no idea what saihai meant. I inquired around and finally found out that a saihai was a war baton carried by the commanding samurai warrior to signal troop movements. These batons were short wooden sticks with a tassal made of hair or leather at one end. The flower spike of this plant has a similar look to those old batons, hence the name. Japanese orchid names can be really interesting and obscure sometimes.
This species is cultivated from time to time, or at least sold for cultivation. No doubt it is commonly harvested in all its native countries, particularly in China where it is used as a medicine. Plants are sold each year throughout the world with some suppliers commenting that they “are easy to grow”. I’m not sure about that, though I know for a fact all of those plants were wild sourced. Most people I know who’ve tried to grow this one comment that it gets weaker each year, and eventually dies. This is perhaps due to a tight relationship between the plant and its fungi symbionts.
That aside, it needs a constantly moist, yet well draining mix. In nature it occurs in wet areas in soils high in organic content, but that treatment in cultivation will only lead to problems with rot. Since it is green in winter, it should be given bright shade conditions at that time, but in summer it can be fully shaded since it is dormant.
I was successful with one specimen for around 4 years. It grew and even increased in size, but then eventually waned. I think the relationship between fungal symbionts and the roots has to be maintained or the plant eventually fails. With luck you may succeed in growing it for a time. It should be fully cold hardy to USDA cold hardiness zone 7, and perhaps a bit lower with protective measure. That shouldn’t include too much mulching since it needs some sun in winter. Plants are reported growing as far north as the Sapporo area in Hokkaido, so perhaps it is more cold hardy.
Not a beauty, but not what you’d call an uninteresting species either. If you can get it to grow, then I’d say it is a lovely addition to the discerning terrestrial orchidist’s collection. Happily, seed set in the wild is high and the plant is fairly widespread and common, at least in the Fukuoka area.