Fairy Slipper Orchid, Calypso bulbosa

The cold woodlands of the northern hemisphere are the dwelling place of a tiny, delicate orchid, Calypso bulbosa, aptly named after the Greek nymph. When you first see it in person you are immediately taken back by its seductive beauty and elusive stature. This diminutive plant, also known as the fairy slipper, can be found from cold temperate regions across the northern US, up through the boreal forests of Canada and Alaska, straight across the taiga of Russia, into Scandinavia, and south through the mountains of western China, Korea and northern Japan. It is nowhere truly common, and is often overlooked.

C. bulbosa, as the name indicates, grows from a single oval subterranean bulb no bigger than the average fingernail. In the winter months a single broad, lightly pleated leaf arises just above the forest floor, only to wither in the summer months during the plant’s dormancy. It regrows again in the fall, just before the snows of winter hit. The flower stalk, occasionally up to 15 cm tall, but often much shorter, begins growth once the cold of winter has abated. Depending on exposure, as well as altitude and latitude, plants are in flower from April to June. The flowers are borne singly at the apex of the flower stalk, and are accompanied by a whitish, translucent floral bract at the pinnacle of the stalk.

fairy-slipper adult plant
Adult plants of Calypso bulbuosa typically are no more than hand high.

Despite being quite small, the flowers are startlingly beautiful, though you’ll have to get on your belly to really appreciate them. Five of the flower parts are nearly identical in size and shape, two petals and three sepals, splayed out in a star-like pattern. The lip is slipper-like, similar to a lady slipper (genus Cypripedium), but more elongated with a frilled front plate with upward curling margins. At the front of the mouth of the lip are a number of hairy bristles. At the base of the lip, sometimes extending a fairly long distance beyond the lip proper (especially in v. speciosa) are two horn-like projections. Overall flower color is pink-purple. The column is held horizontal to the ground, is relatively long and has a broad hood.

The lip is striated with white and various shades of darker purple, or purple brown veins and spots. Variety americana is known for a bright yellow patch in around the area where the bristles protrude, making it perhaps the most attractive of the four known varieties. Pure white alba flowers, as well as pale “semi-alba” types are also known. Occasionally, two flowers can be found on one stalk. Seed pods develop in an upward standing position.

Calypso bulbosa flowers
A pair of Calypso bulbosa v. occidentalis growing in a coniferous forest in East Sooke Park, Vancouver Island, Canada.

There are currently four accepted varieties of C. bulbosa:

C. bulbosa v. bulbosa – a denizen of northern Eurasia from Scandinavia and extending across the boreal forest regions of Russia to the Korean Peninsula and northern Japan. This was the first variety to be described by the father of binomial nomenclature, Linnaeus, in 1753.

C. bulbosa v. speciosa – confined to the high mountains of western China, parts of inner Mongolia and central Japan (limited to high elevations of the Southern Japanese Alps; Yamanashi, Nagano, Shizuoka, and Saitama Prefectures). Somewhat of an enigma, it is not completely certain that Chinese and Japanese plants are of the same type. In China and Japan it is found in subalpine coniferous forest up to 3,200 m (~10,500’) elevation.

C. bulbosa v. americana – found across the entire boreal region of North America from the Atlantic to Pacific, as well as the mountainous regions of the western US (in Canada it is widespread in forested regions, in the US from northern Maine, Vermont, Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, South Dakota (Black Hills), Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, Washington, Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, Alaska; historically N.Y. (last seen in 1969) and New Hampshire. Known for growing into large, clumping colonies and having yellow crested lips. Largely restricted to northern white cedar (Thuja occidentalis) and balsam fir (Abies balsamea) swamps east of the Mississippi River, but occasionally found on drier sites in mixed coniferous/deciduous forest often over limestone bedrock. In Michigan it can be found in swales between old lakeside dunes in jack pine forest (Pinus banksiana) alongside Cypripedium arietinum. In the western US it is found at mid-elevation coniferous forest in the northern Rocky Mountains, and up to 3,000 m (10,000’) in Arizona, its southernmost distribution. In Canada it is found from Labrador to British Columbia, and northward to the Northwest Territories, typically in coniferous forest.

C. bulbosa v. occidentalis – confined to western North America from California to Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Montana, British Columbia, and Alaska. In the south it is found exclusively in cool, “fog-belt” coastal forests, and further north (Idaho and Montana and northward) it can be seen in moister inland mid-elevation mountains as well. It is a characteristic plant of the Pacific Northwest rain forest belt often seen near sea level, and flowering earlier than most other varieties.

Calypso bulbosa leaves flower buds
The leaves of Calypso bulbosa grow in the fall, persist through the winter months and go dormant after flowering in the spring. In this photo you can also see the flower buds have formed and they too overwinter, so care must be taken to protect these if you are growing the plant.

My first encounter with this species was in the high mountains of Colorado near Rocky Mountain National Park. I was there in the early fall and so did not see them in flower, but their distinctive leaves gave them away. Years later I saw large colonies in the mountains around Bozeman, Montana, again in the fall. It wasn’t until I finally made a trip to the Victoria, British Columbia area in May 2019 that I finally got to see v. occidentalis in flower, growing in Douglas fir (Pseudotsuga menziesii) and western red cedar forest (Thuja plicata) just above the pounding waves of the Salish Sea. It was a magical experience for me, and upon seeing them I was immediately convinced that both Calypso and fairy slipper are very apt names for this little jewel.

Calypso bulbosa, though widely distributed, is becoming increasingly rare, particularly in the southern end of its range. It is considered rare in the lower 48 states except in a handful of states, and in the northeast it is either vulnerable, endangered or extinct. Populations in Minnesota as well as the northern Rockies and Pacific coast appear secure for now, and likely Canadian populations are by and large in pretty good shape, too. In Japan plants are in danger due to climate change since populations are confined to high mountain forests that are undergoing rapid warming. Populations in Europe are considered near threatened by the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature). In all regions where urbanization is occurring (for instance around Victoria, B.C.) populations are being adversely effected by development and increased human disturbance. In various places it is also subject to over collection for the horticultural trade, for example, in the Japanese Southern Alps and the Pacific Northwest of North America.

Calypso bulbosa alba flower
All varieties of Calypso bulbosa have individuals that are either true pure white “alba” flowers, or very pale ones like this “semi-alba” flower.

First and foremost, this is a plant of cool to cold forests, hence if you want to grow it, you need to keep this in mind. It likely will not endure temperatures above 26 C (80 F) for long periods of time. The main reason it lives either at high altitude or in cedar bogs at the southern end of its range is due to the cool conditions these environments provide. Another important point is that this species does not live in soil, but rather in the thin layer of humus overlaying forest soils, or moss covered humus of bog environments. Third, this orchid appears to have a dependency on mycorrhizal fungi even throughout adulthood. For all these reasons it will be a challenge to maintain in most typical garden settings, particularly in areas that experience heat spells for more than say a few days.

Another issue in growing them is their diminutive size. They can be harmed by foot traffic, either human or animal made, very easily either through mechanical damage or the compacting of the growing medium. Snails and slugs are another bane of this plant, and unless diligently controlled, will be the end of them in short order. Rodents as well need to be kept away. Mice, voles, pika, marmots, rats and the like can make an easy snack out of a Calypso in just a few bites. Likewise, moles and burrowing animals need to be controlled lest the thin roots and tiny bulbs are damaged or exposed to the air. Finally, these plants are so small that they cannot endure much competition from neighboring plants including grasses, any type of ground cover, spreading bushes, or indeed even vigorously growing mosses.

If all that weren’t enough, something like 99.9% of the plants that you might find for sale are for certain wild collected. While that may not actually be a legal issue, and in truth this species is considered globally secure for the time being, it may give you an ethical pause. In this world of online auctions and on demand next day delivery, one can easily see that all collectable plants are more at risk than ever before. Yes, this species has been produced artificially, but only by a handful of knowledgeable enthusiasts, and certainly not on a commercial scale. So, as with all terrestrial orchid sales, buyer beware.

With all that in mind, if you still desire to grow C. bulbosa, and have access to healthy plants and proper fungal symbionts (best acquired by getting humus or conifer duff from a known habitat), then you may succeed with this species. It should be grown in shady conditions, never in direct sun. The compost needs to remain moist during the growth phase extending from fall until late spring. In summer some drying is tolerated, but droughty conditions are not recommended. Never use chlorinated water or high mineral water or you will kill them quick. Keep the growing compost cool at all times, even if the air temperatures exceed the mid 20s C (above 80 F). A northern exposure is recommended rather than southern to prevent overheating.

Grow the plants in a thin layer of partially decomposed conifer duff no more than 5 cm (2”) deep over a continuously moist layer of neutral to slightly acidic inorganic material such as river sand, perlite, Turface, small size pumice or the like. The point is that you don’t want this layer to modify the conifer duff layer chemically or mechanically, say from earthworms or soil burrowing insects. Companion plants need to be completely noncompetitive or absent altogether. A layer of moss is OK as long as it doesn’t overgrow the orchids (that’s one way they are overwhelmed even in the wild), and in fact the plants will do better by themselves. If you have a native forest, or forest-like condition in the outside garden, and you live near natural populations, you may try this one in the open garden. Otherwise I recommend growing them in containers and keeping these well protected throughout the season in an outdoor shade house or the like. Refrain from using fertilizer of any kind, even at weak dilution rates.

Calypso bulbosa flowers in nature
A group of Calypso bulbosa v. occidentalis in their full glory, East Sooke Park, Vancouver Island, British Columbia, Canada.

So, there you have it: a tiny little jewel of a plant better suited to being appreciated in nature than in a garden setting. Let’s hope this lovely little orchid continues to grace the far flung woods of the north county for many years to come.

Bletilla ochracea, the yellow flower Chinese ground orchid

The only yellow flowered member of the genus Bletilla, B. ochracea, hails from south-central China. Described nearly a century ago (Schlechter, 1913) it remained essentially unknown to western garden enthusiasts until the early 1990s when plants began to circulate in the growing export trade from that country. At first it sounded too good to be true, a pure yellow flowered Bletilla species, and the lurid yellow photos that started popping up on recently created world wide web looked too good to be true. Indeed, most were over saturated to near ridiculous shades. In time plants became more distributed and the reality of this flower became less legend, and more real. Growers found themselves not with brilliant deep yellow flowered plants, but rather soft pastel ones. Nevertheless, B. ochracea remains a novelty in this genus of otherwise purple-violet flowered plants.

Bletilla ochracea is a perennial, deciduous terrestrial orchid. It’s long grass-like leaves number between 4 to 8 and grow alternately off a thick stem, with a total height of 30 to 50 centimeters. The highly pleated leaves are bright green in color, but in some clones the newly emerging growths can be suffused with dark purple-red, which turn green when fully mature. The plant looks much like a young palm tree seedling when out of flower. The thick rhizome has flattened, bulb-like internodes and a vigorous root system. Overall, the plant looks very similar to the well known Bletilla striata, but is a bit more gracile in appearance.

Bletilla ochracea plant
Bletilla ochracea is the only member of the genus that sports yellow flowers.

The flower stalk can be quite long and hold up to 10 or more flowers in robust specimens (mine never seem to have more than just a handful per stalk). The flowers bloom sequentially, and are typical sized for the genus, around 6 cm across. They have a classic “orchid flower” look, with a broad, highly ruffled lip. What makes the flower unique is its light yellow color, which can range from a pale pastel yellow to almost white. The most intensely colored part of the flower is the lip, which has a deep orange-yellow base color that is streaked with purple and red patches. The elongated, pale yellow column extends over its uppermost part, adding to the beauty of the flower. Flowering typically commences three or more weeks after Bletilla striata – in nature, from June to August.

The plant is reported to grow in a variety of habitats and elevations in south central China and northern Vietnam. It is said to be at home in both evergreen and deciduous broad leaf forest, grasslands, coniferous forest, in gullies in the shade, and thickets. Plants can be found from 300-2400 meter elevations in a wide area of China from southeast Gansu, Guangxi, Guizhou, Henan, Hubei, Hunan, southern Shaanxi, Sichuan, and Yunnan. There is a an odd and erroneous web based reference that this species is also from west Africa – something not substantiated in any literature I’ve come across.

Bletilla ochracea flower
Bletilla ochracea flowers later than B. striata. This clone flowers for me a full month after, in late June and early July.

The flowers of this species seem at least somewhat variable in color depending on the clone and also environmental conditions. Plants grown in full sun tend to have red-brown pigmentation on the sepals and petals, particularly on the dorsal surfaces. This seems to be a reaction to increased light levels. Plants in shadier areas tend to be more pale yellow. Much has been made about “red flowered” plants, as well as “alba flowered” plants. To my knowledge these are not true varieties, but rather reflect the range of genotypes (combined with environmental conditions) that exist. I’ve even seen a picture of a plant claimed to be a “pink” version – clearly not this species, but more likely a hybrid.
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Three Australian greenhood orchids for the windowsill: Pterostylis curta, nutans, and Nodding Grace

Australia is home to a bewildering variety of terrestrial orchids, however perhaps no other group is more commonly recognized than the greenhood orchids, genus Pterostylis. This article focuses on three members – P. curta, P. nutans, and their artificial hybrid, P. Nodding Grace. All can be grown easily on a cold windowsill provided some basic cultural requirements are met.

At one time all greenhoods were placed in the genus Pterostylis. Recently though, a split was made – those that generally flower in the fall without a basal rosette of leaves are now in the genus Diplodium, while the winter/spring flowering species that retain their leaves when in bloom remain in Pterostylis. The plants discussed in this article are from the latter group.

Pterostylis nutans flowers
Pterostylis nutans has a unique turned down flower with a hood that is nearly completely closed.

Pterostylis curta (the blunt greenhood) and Pterostylis nutans (the nodding greenhood) have overlapping ranges in Australia being found in woodlands from coastal southeast Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria, southeast South Australia, Tasmania, and Lord Howe Island. They prefer moist habitats in the wild, but the range of forest types they’re found in is broad, from grassy woodlands to riparian forests to subtropical rain forest, and even in exotic pine plantations. In habitat these are colony forming plants, increasing rapidly by tuber offsets. Remarkably, I’ve seen no record of the two ever hybridizing with each other in the wild.

Pterostylis Nodding Grace is an artificially produced hybrid that was registered by R.C. Nash in 1984. The exact cross is P. curta (seed parent) and P. nutans (pollen parent). I find it hard to believe that these two species haven’t crossed naturally somewhere in their vast distribution. Perhaps I just haven’t found a record of its occurrence, or maybe one has yet to be discovered and recorded. It is possible they have different pollinators and so are sexually isolated in the wild (a strong possibility given the differences in their flower morphology).

Pterostylis flower
Pterostylis flower structure: A. hood (1a dorsal sepal, 1b lateral petals. B. lower sepals. C. lip or labellum

The common name, greenhood, speaks to the flower’s shape – something like a horned animal with a hood over its head. The general morphology of a Pterostylis flower is a hood-like structure composed of the dorsal sepal fused to the lateral petals, two lower sepals pointing outward from the flower (often upward, but not always), a tongue-like lip within the hood, and just behind the lip a winged column (the sex organ containing both male and female parts). For orientation, see the photo on the left of P. curta.

The long and short of it is that a pollinator (always a type of fly for this genus) lands on the lip having been attracted to the color of the flower or in some cases the odor (both color and odor resemble carrion, but they don’t smell bad to humans). The lip, being hinged at its base, springs backward toward the column, thus pinning the poor fly down. The trap then slowly releases and the fly escapes with no prize (Pterostylis produce no nectar), but with luck the pollen of the flower attaches to its back. The fly visits another flower and the process is repeated, this time depositing the attached pollen onto the next flower. Clever, huh?
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Pterostylis nutans alba, the white flowered nodding greenhood

Pterostylis nutans is a common terrestrial orchid of the eastern states of Australia as well as Tasmania. Much less common is the all white flowered form known as variety alba. I’ve had the good luck of growing this little beauty.

Pterostylis nutans is in all respects a miniature orchid. It grows small, ground hugging rosettes of roughly oval leaves, most not more than 2 cm long each. While these are normally an even bright green color, in the alba form the leaves are lightly veined with white and their overall color is light green. They also are a bit smaller than the normal type, at least in the plants I’ve grown. The rosettes grow from small bulbs and each season these are replaced by new ones that grow at the ends of thin stolons. Each old bulb can grow one to three new ones, so vegetative propagation is the easiest way to increase these plants.

Pterostylis nutan alba plants
The entire plant of Pterostylis nutans alba is rarely more than 15 cm tall.

The flower of P. nutans alba is of course the main interest since it is truly pure white, and like the normal green flowered type, it is transparent as well. It is hard to explain the ghost-like quality of the flowers unless you’ve seen them in person. They are not large, averaging no more than 30 mm across, making them nearly as large as the rosettes of leaves they grow from. Seen up close the flowers look like some alien apparition.

Unfortunately, as with many alba flowering terrestrial orchids, this variety seems less vigorous than the normal type. As already said, the plant itself is smaller in size and also less robust. While normal P. nutans is a near weed if grown properly, this little white flowered plant is more gracile and trickier to maintain. Growth commences in late summer to early fall (September to October) and flowers mature sometime in late winter (February to March). My plants remain green well into spring, and finally go dormant when average temperatures rise above 20 C (usually in early June). They remain dormant all summer.

It seems to respond to similar conditions as the normal form, growing well in a moderately acidic sandy humus compost. While in growth they should be given bright shade, even moisture, and temperatures ranging from 5-20 C. I grow all my Pterostylis on an unheated windowsill in a kitchen where they receive no sunlight, the temperature in January never exceeds 10 C, and can go down to 4 C or even lower on cold nights. One should refrain from giving them temperatures above 20 C, at least in the deep winter months.

Pterostylis nutans alba rosette
The leaves of Pterostylis nutans alba are lightly veined with white and are a lemony-green color.

During the summer dormancy the bulbs should remain absolutely dry. I also recommend yearly repotting for best results with this species, which can be done any time during their dormancy. Pterostylis nutans is famous for “diving” into the pot, forming its little bulbs for the following season nearly at the bottom, and sometimes even extending its bulb tipped stolons right out the drainage holes! For this reason, one must be very careful when repotting them since most of the newly formed bulbs will be deep in the pot, or at the very bottom.

What else can I say about this lovely treasure? It is rare and coveted by terrestrial orchid growers, and I feel privileged to have had the chance to grow them myself.

Pterostylis nutans alba flower
The flower of Pterostylis nutans alba looks like some alien ghost!

Alas, I must confess that after 4 seasons I lost my plants. I started with two average size bulbs that produced one flower the first season. The second season I was rewarded with two flowers and perhaps 10 rosettes of leaves. Oddly, the third season I got no flowers and only a handful of plants. The fourth season they simply dwindled into nothing. What was frustrating was that a pot of the common green form grew right alongside of them, increasing in leaps and bounds each year.

While I’ve searched for more bulbs, I’ve yet to source any more. This little beauty is truly remarkable, and if you are a terrestrial orchid nut like me, once you’ve seen them, you’ll be hooked. My search for new plants continues.

Pterostylis nutans normal and alba flowers
The meeting of two minds? P. nutans alba and the normal green flowered form go head to head.

 

Japan’s common woodland Platanthera species, P. minor, the large leaved dragonfly orchid

The genus Platanthera is well known for its lovely fringed flowered species such as P. ciliaris and the wildly showy P. grandiflora, both from eastern North America. However, a number of species are just the opposite – small flowered and white to green in color. Southern Japan is home to such a species, P. minor, who’s leaves are far more showy then the flowers themselves.

Platanthera minor is a deciduous woodland terrestrial orchid. It is a fairly small plant with broad bluish green, glossy, finely veined leaves that are rib-less; 6-15 cm long and 2-5 cm wide. They are born on a thick fleshy stem in a lose spiral, 3 to 7 in all, and becoming smaller, eventually ending as floral bracts as they ascend the flower stalk. Sterile plants mostly bear a single, broad leaf with no significant above ground stem showing. These smaller leaves are also unique in that they are more rounded at the ends than the leaves of flowering plants, a trait common to other species of this genus. These do not necessarily represent juvenile plants, but may rather be adults “taking a rest” from a heavy flowering/seeding cycle.

Platanthera minor plant
Platanthera minor is an orchid of moist woodlands, rather than being a bog plant.

The flower stalk grows to a height of 10-25 cm and bears anywhere from 4 to 15 buds each with an accompanying bract that is very large in proportion to the buds themselves. The small greenish-white flowers have an interesting insect-like shape and open sometime in mid July. The light green dorsal sepal and petals form a small cupped hood in which the column is cradled. Two brown pollina contrast strongly with the white column and the downward pointing and backward recurving white lip (which actually looks like a tongue). The remaining sepals are held laterally and curve upward giving the appearance of wings flapping. The spur is long and points backward away from the flower. This strange little flower is not more than a couple centimeters across.

It can be found in the warmer parts of Japan (central Honshu and south to Shikoku, and Kyushu), as well as parts of China, Korea, and Taiwan. On Kyushu it is relatively common in moist forests growing on gentle to severe slopes, but also on ridge lines, from near sea-level to moderate elevations (~50-700 m). Plants occur in small colonies, with few flowering individuals (usually less than 10% of the plants in any given group).

Platanthera minor flowers
The flowers of Platanthera minor cannot be considered showy, but they certainly are unique!

For several years I saw this plant growing here and there on low to moderate size mountains over a large geographical area. Every time I attempted to get pictures of the flowers I was thwarted. I was either there too early, too late, the flower stalks had died, or the plants just “disappeared”. There was a clump that I found just 10 minutes from my house, but I could not find the plant the following year no matter how long I looked. If that weren’t bad enough, the depths of summer’s heat is when this plant flowers, a time when the mosquitoes will will happily cart you away. Talk about frustrating! Finally, in July 2007 I got a shot of a plant in flower, albeit a rather unremarkable specimen.
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Japan’s largest twayblade orchid, Liparis kumokiri

A close cousin to Liparis krameri is L. kumokiri. It shares many attributes with that species including its overall habit as well as habitat choice. I haven’t heard of any reported natural hybrids between the two, but it is quite likely, and such plants would be hard to distinguish from the parents. Their differences lay mostly in the flower shape and color, as well as L. kumokiri being on average a far larger plant with broader, ovate leaves. Out of flower though, one could easily be mistaken for the other.

Liparis kumokiri habitat with flowers
This flowering plant of Liparis kumokiri is growing on the top of a mountain overlooking Fukuoka City at an elevation of 730 meters. Fukuoka Prefecture, Kyushu, Japan.

Liparis kumokiri is a deciduous woodland perennial orchid. A pair of broad glossy leaves ascend from a pseudobulb that sits at ground level. The leaves are veined with the center vein being the most prominent. The leaf edges are flat or undulating, giving the false impression of serrations. They are a bright green and completely hairless; 7-15 cm long and 4-10 cm wide. The pseudobulb is round, but somewhat compressed, and 2-4 cm in diameter.

From the center of the leaves the branched less flower stalk grows to a height of 10-25 cm and supports anywhere from 5-20 bright green flowers. The flowers are typical looking for a Liparis, but give the impression of being rounded. They are about 1 cm across. The broad lip is strongly recurved. The sepals are arranged in a nearly perfect triangle while the petals are wispy almost hair like affairs and point backwards strongly. The column looks almost stalked. One interesting feature is the shape of the flower stalk – it has four distinctly flat sides so that the cross section would produce a square shape much like the stems of plants in the mint family. Like every other part of this plant, the seed pods are bright green and are held vertically.

Liparis kumokiri flowers
The flowers of Liparis kumokiri are unremarkable and not more that 1.5 cm across. Cultivated specimen.

Like its near relative, this twayblade orchid is found throughout Japan in moist woodlands and mountain forests, even up to the subalpine zone in grasslands and thickets. It flowers anytime from May in the south to July in Hokkaido. In the Fukuoka area it is limited to higher elevations, not below 650 meters or so. It is possible that L. kumokiri is a variant of the wide ranging L. campylostalix which is found from the subtropics of Indochina clear up to Siberia!

I first saw this orchid in a nursery in Fukuoka City. They had about 50 plants all just recently out of flower. Of course I couldn’t resist and I bought two. I had read that this species is actually quite common in Japan, but up to that point had I never crossed paths with one. In late July 2006 I finally got my chance. I was walking a high ridge line (about 850 meters elevation) and to my left was a lovely forest just screaming ORCHIDS!, so I went off trail for a hunt. I was soon rewarded with a large Liparis plant. At first I thought it was L. krameri, but closer inspection showed it to be this species instead. A search of nearby areas revealed several dozen plants, many of them in small clumps. Some individuals were huge for a Liparis with leaf spans up to 30 cm – I’d never seen such large robust plants before. I was stoked. Many had seed pods as well.
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Kramer’s twayblade orchid, Liparis krameri

Japan is home to a handful of deciduous Liparis species, commonly called twayblade orchids.  One of the more interesting in its leaf form is Liparis krameri, an unassuming herb who’s Japanese name speaks volumes about the flower’s showiness.  Simply put, it looks like a small insect!  Still, every time I find one of these little plants in the field my heart skips a beat – there it sits on the forest floor like some lost precious jewel.

Liparis krameri plant
Liparis krameri is an unassuming plant, but in my eyes, a little jewel of Japan’s forests.

Liparis krameri is a deciduous woodland terrestrial orchid. A pair of broad glossy leaves ascend from a pseudobulb that sits at ground level. The leaves are markedly veined with the center vein being the most prominent. The leaf edges are flat or undulating, giving the false impression of serrations. They are a bright shiny green, completely hairless, and tapering elegantly to a point; 7-12 cm long and 3-8 cm wide. The pseudobulb is round, but somewhat compressed; 2-3 cm in diameter.

From the center of the leaves the branch less flower stalk grows to a height of 10-25 cm and supports anywhere from 5-20 insect looking flowers. While the flowers are typical looking for a Liparis, they are even more spider-like in appearance than most. Each is about 2 cm long. The broad lip is strongly recurved ending in a point. The long sepals are held in a triangle and are undulating. The hair-like petals are held directly backward The column is long and arching. The flower color is variable from pure bright green throughout to deep purple-brown, and every shade between. Many plants have a complex purple veined lip. The flowers are born sequentially, thus the plant can bloom for weeks.

This twayblade orchid is found throughout the cool temperate regions of Japan as well as the Korean Peninsula, China (Manchuria), and the higher elevations of Taiwan. It lives in moist woodlands in mountain forests. In the mountains of southern Japan it seems to prefer somewhat higher elevations (500+ meters) where night time temperatures are cooler, thus revealing its true nature – a cool temperate climate species.

Liparis krameri flowers
The flowers of Liparis krameri give the plant its Japanese name, jigabachisou, which means “sand digger wasp plant” since the flowers resemble the wasp species Ammophila sabulosa.

This plant is very similar looking to Liparis kumokiri, however, when not in flower L. kumokiri is a larger plant with more broad leaves while L. krameri has more elegantly tapering leaves. The later seems to have more intricately veined leaves as well creating a complex and lovely pattern. While in both species the leaf margins are crimped or frilled, those of L. krameri are to the point of looking serrated from a distance. The flowers, which are born in late spring or early summer, are commonly marked with purple and purple veins, but some have nearly pure green flowers.
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Habenaria radiata, the egret flower of the Far East

One of Japan’s most famous orchids is the delicate terrestrial species, the egret flower, Habenaria radiata.  This plant’s flower indeed looks much like a snowy egret with its display plumage puffed out.  Despite being well known world wide, ironically this species is imperiled in the wild.  In addition, most growers find it a bit difficult to keep for more than a season or two, but that is mostly a problem with cultural requirements, as we shall see.

Habenaria radiata is a small terrestrial orchid of grassy wetlands and seepage slopes throughout Japan, the Korean Peninsula, and some parts of eastern China.

Habenaria radiata flower
It is easy to see how this species got the name “egret flower”.

The leaves are grass-like, up to 7 in number, and are between 5-20 cm long, and about 1 cm wide each. New leaves are formed each spring, starting out as small leafy growths that extend upward over the summer.  They are arranged alternately up a single stem that continues on as a branch less flower spike up to 50 cm tall, but usually much shorter than that.  Flowering commences in late July and peaks in August.

The flower stalk holds anywhere from 1 to 8 flowers, each being around 4 cm wide.  The the extravagant lip as well as the petals are pristine white, whereas the sepals are simple, small and green.  Without a doubt, the lip steals the show – it has three main lobes, the two biggest extend laterally and are highly fringed, while the center lobe is simple, elongate, and pointing downward.

Habenaria radiata new growths
In the spring the leaves of Habenaria radiata are quite small and grow close to the ground. This is a mixed bunch of variegated leaf varieties. The pure white plants will die before flowering.

The lateral lobes of the lip give it the distinctive “egret flower” shape, while the petals, also pure white and lightly toothed, splay upwards, looking much like wings, and giving the flower an almost angelic appeal up close.  The column itself is interesting, a trident shaped affair, bright green, with two yellow, elongate pollinia at the front in full view, just waiting for a ride on a pollinator’s back or head.  If this weren’t remarkable enough, the flower also boasts a large nectary, or spur, green in color and extending up to 8 cm long in a graceful arc just below the lip.  Truly, this is a regal flower.
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A miniature twayblade from Japan, Listera makinoana

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.

Listera makinoana plant
The Japanese name for Listera makinoana is aofutabaran, meaning “two blue leafed orchid”.

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.

Listera makinoana flowers
The flower spike of Listera makinoana is tiny – despite having many flowers it stands only 6 cm tall!

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.

Listera makinoana plants in habitat
Here is a clump of sterile Listera makinoana on Sefuriyama, Fukuoka Prefecture, Kyushu, Japan. The ten yen coin is about the same size as a US quarter.

 

Japan’s common twayblade, Liparis nervosa v. bituberculata

The warmer parts of Japan are home to a circumglobal species of orchid, Liparis nervosa v. bituberculata.  This small, yet intriguing, plant is one of the most common orchids in Japan’s warm temperate and subtropical forests.

Liparis nervosa v. bituberculata is an evergreen orchid usually supporting two and sometimes three opposing leaves off an elongate psueudobulb.  The plant is small, no more than 20 cm tall, the flower spike included.  The psuedobulb is fleshy, purple to green in color, above ground, and grows up to 6 cm tall and 1.5 cm wide.  The leaves grow from nodes along the pseudobulb and are deeply ribbed, growing from  5-15 cm long and 3-8 cm wide. Unlike other members of this genus, the leaves aren’t glossy looking on their surface, but rather ribbed looking from the deep set veins in them.  They often have a crinkled look about them as well.

Liparis nervosa v. bituberculata habitat
Liparis nervosa v. bituberculata flowering on a sand dune pine forest, Higashi Ward, Fukuoka City, Kyushu, Japan.

A branch less flower stalk grows from the tip of the pseudobulb to a height of no more than 20 cm, and usually much less. It supports 5-20 purple-black flowers born in sequence, although most or all can be in flower at one time. Each flower is small, no more than 2 cm across.  The flower parts are purple-black overall, but are green at their points of attachment.  The pollina are bright green, almost electric looking.  The sepals are held in a triangular arrangement while the petals are thinner, almost peg-like, and are sharply back facing.  The broad lip is curled backward and has a deep valley down its center, giving it a distinct bisymmetric shape.  The flowers may be at least partially autogamous (self pollinting) since most flowering plants will set seed.

The variety bituberculata is found throughout the warmer regions of Japan including all of the southern islands down to Okinawa (where it is threatened), Kyushu, Shikoku, and Honshu as far north as Fukushima Prefecture on the Pacific coast and Fukui Prefecture on the Sea of Japan side.  It is likely to occur also in South Korea and parts of China.  L. nervosa is found virtually across the globe in tropical to subtropical regions with suitable habitat:  China, Taiwan, the Philippines, Indochina, India, tropical Africa, tropical South America, Central America, the West Indies, and peninsula Florida.

Liparis nervosa v. bituberculata flower
The flower of Liparis nervosa v. bituberculata is rather pretty up close, but is small, no more than 2 cm across.

Not surprisingly, it has been collected and named on many occasions such that numerous synonyms exist worldwide.  In Japan v. bituberculata is found in many environments, but always in forests, from moist broad leaf evergreen woodlands, to conifer plantations, and even pine forests on seaside sand dunes. On Kyushu it is restricted to lower elevations, from sea level to ~600 meters.

This has to be the most common terrestrial orchid in the Fukuoka area, and also the most cosmopolitan in habitat choice.  It is found in almost any forest setting and also at any elevation up to about 600 meters.  V. bituberculata is limited to Japan (possibly Korea and China, but I have no specific reference), however L. nervosa is pantropical in distribution, being found on every continent in or near the tropics with the exception of Europe and Australia.  The typical form of  L. nervosa is also a much larger plant by comparison, up to 60 cm tall, three times the size of Japanese plants.  V. bituberculata is found from subtropical to warm temperate climates within Japan, making it the most north growing variety of this wide ranging species.
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