Here’s a brief article about a truly lilliputian orchid, Listera makinoana. This little plant is so small that finding it in its native haunts is a task for sore eyes. I’ve been lucky enough to stumble upon just one small colony to date.
Listera makinoana is a tiny species standing no more than 10 cm tall. Two small heart-shaped leaves straddle a thin, hairy stem opposite each other and near to the ground. They are shiny, yet look ribbed due to three main veins traveling from their base and ending at the tip. Along these veins the leaf color is more whitish, hence giving a false sense of variegation to the leaf. The leaf margins are also distinctly uneven, almost toothed, not unlike some members of the genus Liparis.
Despite the plant’s small size it can sport up to twenty emerald green flowers. The flower’s broad lip is cleft in the middle thus forming two rounded lobes. The flowers bloom sequentially, yet all can be in flower at one time. Remarkably, the peak of flowering season is late July. It probably spreads by underground rhizomes forming colonies that are in fact just a few individuals.
This miniature terrestrial orchid is confined to the mountains of Japan from Kyushu and Shikoku northward through Honshu to the southern Tohoku Region. Locally I’ve found it on only one mountain, but it is considered a fairly common species in parts of its range. It grows in moist rich woods.
I made acquaintance with this little species the first time in 2004 after a long and exhausting hike. I was nearly running down a steep trail when my gaze struck something very unusual to my right. I caught a fleeting image of a Listera in bloom, but that was impossible since plants in that genus bloom in early spring and here it was nearly August! I stopped immediately and quickly found two small plants in flower. They were remarkably tiny, no more than 6 cm tall, flower-stalk and all. Amazing! Each sported many little bright emerald green flowers. My mind wobbled: Listera in flower in the dead heat of summer? A fast search of the area revealed no other plants, but I marked the place in my mind.
The following year I was unable to see the plants again, and the subsequent year I couldn’t find the original specimens I saw two years earlier. Instead I found a very small patch a few meters away, all out of bloom or sterile. I’ve spent hours trying to find additional plants, but this is the only patch I’ve seen in all my travels in the mountains of Fukuoka. In my book I consider this one a bit of a rarity, at least locally.
I have not seen this species in cultivation. It perhaps could be tried as a potted plant, kept continuously moist and humid, less it melt away during a dry or hot spell. It grows from Kyushu to northern Honshu, and so seems indifferent to temperature, though it is definitely a temperate species.
This plant’s names, both the Latin binomial and the Japanese one, are simple, yet interesting. The genus Listera is named after Dr. Martin Lister, English naturalist and physician, while the specific epithet makinoana is after a different man, the famous Japanese botanist, Tomitaro Makino. Sometimes referred to as the “father of Japanese botany”, he was one of the first Japanese botanists to work on classifying plants using Linnaeus’s binomial system.
The Japanese name for this orchid is aofutabaran from the words ao (“blue”), futa (“two”), ba (“leaf”), and ran (“orchid”). The meaning is simple and descriptive, the “two blue leaved orchid”, a reference to the bluish appearance of the paired leaves .
A beauty? A cutie? Worth growing? These are indeed up to the eyes of the beholder. It remains a unique, if tiny, member of Japan’s woodland flora.