Neofinetia falcata (now considered by most authorities to fall under the genus Vanda), is a small epiphytic orchid hailing from southeastern China, South Korea, and Japan. Throughout its range in Japan it is now considered either critically endangered, endangered, or vulnerable by Japan’s Ministry of the Environment. That includes the area I live, Fukuoka Prefecture, on Kyushu’s northwest coast. What follows is an account of my wife, Yumi, discovering a semi-wild population on the very eves of the largest city in southern Japan, Fukuoka.
A little background information first. I have hunted the woods around Fukuoka City for over 10 years now and have found out first-hand just how rare most orchid species have become over the centuries. For perspective, realize that Fukuoka itself has a population of nearly 1.5 million people, and the greater metropolitan area has many more – about 5.6 million. It ranks as Japan’s 6th largest city. Impressive.
Such large human populations have a huge impact on the environment. Virtually no lowland native plant communities yet survive, except as remnants on hills scattered here and there in and around urbanized areas and on sea islands that dot the coastline. Virtually all of these are biologically impoverished from centuries of human impact. The remaining land has been in agricultural use for centuries, and the rivers all contained within massive earthen dikes. Urban rivers and smaller streams are as a rule bound by concrete walls. The hills and mountains themselves remain mostly forested, but on average more than 50% of native forest has been replaced by either hinoki (Chamaecyparis obtusa) or sugi (Cryptomeria japonica) plantations – poor habitat for most orchid species. Remnant old growth forest can be found here and there, usually in the immediate vicinity of temples or shrines, occasionally along river courses or streams, and on the very topmost parts of mountain ridges. It is here that one finds Kyushu’s remaining populations of unusual plants.
Japan is famous for its “happy Monday” holidays and one falls right around my birthday every July, umi-no-hi (directly translating as “sea day” or “marine day”), a tribute to Japan’s rich seas. My wife got the idea to get up early and go to a small river in a little valley just north of the city. She had gone there the previous week on a class trip with her children (she’s a preschool teacher) and had found a really odd looking fungus that I’d not seen before. Based on her description and memory, I figured it to be some kind of stinkhorn mushroom. A quick search on the web and I found the likely candidate, Clathrus archeri, the octopus stinkhorn. I’d seen stinkhorns before, but nothing like this one. So we packed up the car with camp chairs, photo equipment, and fresh coffee and biscotti for a morning picnic.
We quickly found a nice spot in the shade along a curve of the river. Toes in the cool water, sitting comfortably in our chairs, sipping coffee and gnashing on biscotti… can life get much better? After a while I got the cameras ready to get photos and video of the fungus. I found them quickly and realized they were indeed C. archeri, a stinkhorn native to Australia and Tasmania that has now naturalized over much of the northern hemisphere. After some intense photography I returned to the river. Yumi was sitting and enjoying the river, watching an older gentleman play with his dog in the rapids. Then she went for a stroll of her own.
A few minutes later she returned and said, “hey look at what I found. It is a fuuran, isn’t it?” I stared down at her open hand, cradling a little Neofinetia falcata in full bud. Incredulous, I asked where the heck she had found it and she pointed to a small stone wall along the river, “on top of that wall”. I bolted up. I knew darn well that orchids don’t just magically appear on stone walls, and began to canvas the large ginkgo tree above our heads. In less time than it takes to dip a biscotti into coffee I saw the first one around 10 meters up, growing on a nearly horizontal branch. Further up I saw more, and then more, and then flowering plants. My excitement began to mushroom.
I got the camera equipment back online and began looking for flowering plants to photograph. Unfortunately, my SLR has only a short telephoto lens and so I was forced to use the video camera’s 21x telephoto to get proper shots since the flowering plants were all quite high up. The quality of its jpegs are less than be desired, but I had to be content with them. Luckily, it takes very nice video regardless of the telephoto distance, so I captured some nice video clips.
Inspection of the tree yielded more and more plants, many of them flowering. I scoured the surrounding trees (various native hardwoods), but could not locate a single orchid on any of them though they were festooned with the epiphytic ferns Lepisorus thunbergii and Lemmaphyllum microphyllum – both epiphytic weeds of this region. Yumi and I then broke camp and headed across the river to an even larger ginkgo in the hopes of finding more N. falcata. We saw lots of the ferns, but not one more orchid.
It appears that the tree in question, a female specimen of Ginkgo biloba, is the only host to these orchids at this location. This tree is in the vicinity of a famous shrine and an entire valley full of old growth forest. It seems logical that this forest is the origin of this colony, providing the seed necessary to colonize this non-native tree species. An alternative possibility is that fuuran were grown at the shrine years ago, and that is how the plants became naturalized. The tree is far too tall to have had human hands put the plants so high up – literally a crane would have been needed. In all, I’d guess the population in this tree is at least a hundred separate plants, of all ages and sizes.
What is even more funny to me is that my wife, who despite enjoying trips to the outdoors, spends a mere fraction of the time I do outside, and yet she found all the interesting things at this place – both the orchid and the fungus! Ah well, it just goes to show, you can’t know or see everything, not even if it is under your nose.
It is comforting to know that this colony exists and rouses my interest in searching for more colonies up the valley. It also makes me wonder if I should bring my wife to other potential orchid habitats for another pair of eyes to see with.