Cypripedium flavum, the yellow Cypripedium of western China

In his book Native Orchids of North America, Donovan Correll wrote of an extremely disjunct population of the showy lady slipper (Cypripedium reginae) said to be found in the mountains of western China. That was an eyeful for me at the time (I was 16) – how could that be? China was literally on the other side of the world! Surely, some strange force was at work here. Years later I learned of the yellow counterpart to C. reginae growing in western China’s fabled mountains, the now well known Cypripedium flavum.

These two species are at once highly reminiscent of each other, and yet obviously different, something Correll didn’t notice in the dried herbarium specimens he had examined. Indeed for many years, with the “Bamboo Curtain” fully drawn, many Chinese orchids fell into near mythical status – unknown except by the handful of botanists who roamed those far regions a hundred or more years ago. This is the story of this lovely slipper orchid today.

Cypripedium flavum clump
Cypripedium flavum often forms large clumps in nature.

Cypripedium flavum is a deciduous, herbaceous, perennial, terrestrial orchid found in thin woods of high mountain valleys. It’s fleshy, densely pubescent stem can grow nearly as high as C. reginae, up to 60 cm tall in large specimens, but is usually two thirds that height. Also, like C. reginae, it bears many pubescent, elliptic leaves, as many as 10 in number, in a alternating pattern up the stem. The rhizome is stout, bearing many thick, light brown roots. Plants tend to clump, with 15 or more stems each, but can occur singly.

The flower again is much like in C. reginae, but smaller, having a natural spread of 4-6 cm on average (or as Dr. Phillip Cribb says, “flowers the size of ping-pong balls”). The dorsal sepal and synsepal are very broad to the point of being nearly ovate, the former hanging in a horizontal position like a hood over the lip, the latter, cradling the bottom of it. The petals are more elongate and in most plants tend to recurve backwards. The lip is rather round to somewhat elongate, sometimes having a slight cleft “chin” appearance, and often is laterally compressed.

Flower color is variable, usually being a yellow to cream base throughout. The petals and sepals can be flushed, spotted, and striated with varying amounts of purple-maroon color, or can be completely unmarked. The same goes with the lip – it can be highly spotted, lightly so, or not at all. The staminode tends to be deep maroon, but Cribb cites specimens with “butter-yellow staminodes” from northern Sichuan. Alba-like forms have been found as well in northern Yunnan with nearly pure white flowers – except the staminode which retains some purple pigment. Flowers are borne singly, or very rarely in a pair.

Cypripedium flavum is a plant of high mountain valleys, found only in western China from northern Yunnan, a tiny part of eastern Xizang (Tibet), throughout western Sichuan, southern Gansu, and western Hubei. It probably also occurs in parts of southern Shaanxi, but is not reported from there.

This rare yellow slipper orchid is an endemic species confined to alpine valleys from ~2,300-3,700 meters elevation in the Hengduan Mountains of western China. It seems most at home in areas where limestone is near the surface, sometimes numbering in the thousands of plants, such as northern Sichuan’s Huanglong Valley with its famous travertine limestone formations. It can also be seen on limestone scree slopes, in thin coniferous forests or forest margins, in deciduous woods, and in thickets and scrub. It is often accompanied by other Cypripediums in the wild – typically C. calcicola, C. tibeticum, and C. bardolphianum, and occasionally C. farreri, C. franchetii, C. margaritaceum, C. guttatum, and C. plechtrochilum.

Cypripedium flavum typical
“Flavum” means yellow, yet Cypripedium flavum’s flower is typically more cream colored or light yellow.

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Cypripedium tibeticum, a highly variable Chinese lady slipper orchid

One of the most startling of the Chinese lady slipper orchids is the highly variable Cypripedium tibeticum. Superficially it is similar to the more widespread C. macranthos, and indeed some forms of that species, especially those known as hoteiatsumorisou in Japan, are near dead ringers for the more spectacular large flowered forms of C. tibeticum from Sichuan, China.

In a similar way C. tibeticum is as variable as the North American C. parviflorum, making its taxonomy problematic. As a result it has been given any number of names – the bulk of those considered invalid by most authorities. Hopefully in this article I will at least help clarify what plants have been found in nature.

Cypripedium tibeticum is a herbaceous, perennial, terrestrial orchid of high mountain meadows, scrub forests, and forest margins. Its thick, glabrous stem can reach a height of 35 cm, but it is not uncommon to find flowering stems half that high, especially in exposed habitats. Each bears up to four pubescent elliptic to nearly ovate leaves, but more commonly just three are present. While single stemmed plants are frequent, in more favorable environments they can form large clumps with 10 or more growing points.

Cypripedium tibeticum plant
Cypripedium tibeticum is often rather short in stature, but as you can see their flowers can be large and showy.

Generalizing about the flower is quite a bit more tricky since variation in form and color is extreme. The flower’s natural spread can range from a mere 3 cm to as much as 12 cm depending on the form. More consistent features include a highly corrugated lip surface that is richly flushed with maroon brown to purple pigment, boldly striated sepals and petals, conspicuous hairs on the petals towards their point of attachment, and a mostly glabrous ovary. Flowers are typically born one per stem, however rarely they can be double flowered. Beyond that, it is difficult to talk about similar floral characteristics. Even the often mentioned white ring around the lip orifice is hardly a consistent trait. The various forms I’ve seen or heard about and their characteristics are detailed below.

This is one of the more widespread and common Cypripedium species in western China, indeed extending beyond that country’s borders into adjacent areas of northern India (Sikkim) and Bhutan. Within China it has been found from southwestern Xizang (Tibet), northern Yunnan, much of northern and western Sichuan, southern Gansu, and perhaps even parts of Guizhou (according to Considering its native range is in such close proximity to Arunachal Pradesh (India) and extreme northern Myanmar, there is likely habitat in those areas as well. It is with satisfaction that I can say this species is not in immediate danger in its native range, despite being continuously subjected to collecting pressure from plant diggers.

This is a plant of high mountains, having been reported from 2,300-4,200 meters elevation. It can be found on grassy to scrubby slopes and meadows (often occupied by yaks), rocky thin woods, forest margins, on travertine formations, perched on scree slopes, and growing out of cliff faces. It is not found in dense woodlands, but rather is a denizen of open environments. In northern Sichuan I have had the great fortune of seeing it growing in all the above situations from ~3,000-3,500 meters elevation, often accompanied by C. flavum, C. calcicola, and C. bardolphianum, and more rarely C. guttatum, C. shanxiense, and C. farreri. It can form sizable colonies, with many dozens of flowering plants in view, or simply grow here and there in small groups.

Cypripedium tibeticum seed pod
The seed pod of Cypripedium tibeticum is essentially glabrous and often suffused with purple color. I am happy to report such pods were commonly seen in the wild.

As a side note, all of Sichuan’s Cypripediums favor travertine limestone areas. Travertine is limestone produced by the precipitation of carbonate minerals out of mineral springs, in particular hot springs. Western China is a seismically active region overlaid in many places with limestone rock. Where fissures carrying geothermally heated water to the surface come in contact with limestone, travertine formations can form around flowing hot spring areas.
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Cypripedium farreri, a rare yellow slipper orchid of southwestern China

In the high mountains of southwestern China, if you are either very lucky or well informed, or both, you may come across one of the rarest yellow slipper orchids in the world, Cypripedium farreri. As fate would have it I was indeed lucky enough to see this plant in full flower in its native land on a botanical tour lead by Dr. Holger Perner and his wife Wenqing in June 2013. I now am one of the few people who have laid eyes on this rarity in full flower in the wild – to say the least it was an experience of a lifetime!

Cypripedium farreri is a deciduous terrestrial orchid of open, rocky, grassy slopes of high mountains. It’s overall appearance is much like other members of section Cypripedium, though smaller, and with fewer leaves. The plant’s stature is quite small, with average plants standing no more than 20 cm tall, and large plants only attaining 30 cm in total height. Each pubescent stem carries no more than three (more commonly two) broad elongate to ovate, pleated leaves, borne alternately. In nature plants tend to be single stemmed, but occasionally can boast two growths.

Cypripedium farreri plant
Cypripedium farreri in habitat in northern Sichuan, China. Few have had the pleasure to see this rarity in flower in the wild.

The flowers are typically produced singly, but on occasion plants are double flowered and have a natural spread of 7-9 cm each. The flower’s shape is much like other Cypripediums, especially it’s near cousin C. fasciolatum with one caveat, the pouch is “pulled up” around the lip orifice in such a way as to produce a fluted, vase-like shape. The lip also tends to be rather bulbous at its base and its orifice is narrow and deeply toothed – a characteristic seen also in C. fasciolatum, but much less extreme. The sepals and petals are more or less held flat, with some mild twisting, and are quite broad. The lip’s color is pale cream to a dull yellow and notably lined with vertical maroon bars – another signature trait of this plant. The base color of the sepals and petals is bright green-yellow and all are marked with brick red striping. The staminode is yellow and heavily suffused with dark red as is the interior lip orifice and adjacent areas of its inner lining. The flower’s fragrance is much like lily of the valley.

This is one of the rarest of all lady slipper orchids in the world, with only four known localities, all in the Hengduan Mountains of southwestern China, ranging from northern Yunnan in the south, to northwestern Sichuan, and up to southern Gansu (the type locality) in the north. Its habitat is on rocky scree slopes, often near cliffs, in limestone gorges. In the location I visited in Sichuan it grew away from tree cover even in the flatter reaches of the valley, favoring open areas with a little companion herbage other than short grasses and small shrubby herbs. To my knowledge, this is typical habitat for the species, though some sources say it can be found in open woodlands as well. It can be found at 2600-2800 meters elevation in southern Gansu, and up to 3400 meters in Sichuan and Yunnan.

Cypripedium farreri pair
A pair of plants growing on a patch of turf amidst a limestone scree slope, ~3300 meters elevation.

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The Japanese iris garden at Tenmangu Shrine, Dazaifu, Kyushu, Japan

Just south of Fukuoka City on the island of Kyushu, Japan is the small city of Dazaifu. This town is saturated with history, once serving as a major political center, and hosts one of Kyushu’s most famous and visited shrines, Tenmangu. The shrine is well known for its extensive collection of ume trees, Prunus mume, and is a focal point for school kids to come and pray for good luck on their exams. Almost never is the shrine or nearby streets and shops free of tourists, both native and foreign.

One of the shrine’s less known features is its large pool garden full of the Japanese iris (Iris ensata) that explodes into flower right in step with the monsoon rains of early June. Known as hanashoubu in Japanese, today many hundreds of varieties exist, from pure whites to pinks, every shade of blue, rich purples, the whole spectrum of intermediate shades of these, plus multicolored and intricately patterned flowers. The center is commonly marked with yellow, a feature that hearkens back to the wild plant that can still be found in wetlands over much of southern Japan, I. ensata v. ensata, called nobanashoubu in Japanese.

Iris Pool Garden
The iris pool garden at Tenmangu Shrine, Dazaifu, Kyushu, Japan is brimming full of Iris ensata this wet June morning – right in step with the summer monsoon.

In Tenmangu’s iris garden one can get a eyeful of the variety that have been produced over the last several hundred years. Within the Japanese cultivars there are three primary groupings – Edo (hailing from Tokyo under its old name), Higo (developed under the auspices of the Daimyo of Kumamoto, Hitoshi Hosokawa), and Ise (improved cultivars created in the Ise-Matsusaka area of Mie Prefecture). A more obscure group hails from Ayame park in Nagai City, Yamagata Prefecture, and are called the Nagai group. They were rediscovered after the breeding efforts that took place in Edo (old Tokyo) and are thought to be closer to the original wild plants. In other parts of the world, notably America and Belgium, new lines of Iris enstata have been bred in recent years and are becoming popular even in Japan.

What follows is a pictorial essay for the most part. Naming of Japanese plants is often bewilderingly complex and idiosyncratic (even to Japanese people!), though the names of individual cultivars will be indicated with each picture along with their cultivar group. All pictures in this article were taken at Tenmangu Shrine in Dazaifu City.

Iris enstata garden

This Japanese iris garden, though far from being the biggest in Japan, is still chock full of Iris enstata, known as Shoubu in Japanese. Plants grow in circular cement planters year round.

Dazaifu Tenmangu Iris Garden

A wider view of the garden reveals its quaint setting among the hills and surrounding forests of Japanese cedar (Cryptomeria japonica) and hardwoods. Even the monsoon rains won’t keep flower lovers away from the display.

Iris enstata Yorunoniji
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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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A blue orchid flower from Brazil, “Laelia” purpurata, “the witch’s jewel”

About six years ago I was able to acquire a small back-bulb division of Laelia purpurata v. werkhauseri, a “blue flowered” orchid of the Brazilian coast. I didn’t know at the time the history of this plant, nor much else about this species in general since it was an unforeseen gift from a friend. Nor did I realize this species was soon to be placed into the genus Sophronitis (known for their small, round, and red flowers), only to be transferred into Cattleya a year later. All I knew was that I had a “blue orchid” plant that looked like a big Cattleya. By the time I had it up to flowering size, all the name transformations were already said and done.

First, a little bit about this species. It was described in 1852 by Lindley and placed into the Central American genus Laelia based on its 8 pollinia (masses of organized pollen grains) instead of the usual 4 found in Cattleya, a trait of all the large flowered Brazilian Laelia species. Because of their similarity to Cattleya (and dissimilarity to other Laelia) they became known as “Cattleyode” Laelia or the Cattleya-like Brazilian Laelias.

Laelia purpurata werkhauseri
The flower of Cattleya (“Laelia”) purpurata v. werkhauseri is famous for its indigo flushed and veined lip.

Recent DNA research has proven that they are in fact quite distinct from other Laelia in the Americas, and are in fact simply large flowered Cattleya. The first name change for this group happened in 2008 from Laelia to Sophronitis until that genus, lock stock and barrel, was transferred into Cattleya a year later. So, though this plant is still mostly known by growers as Laelia purpurata (and some doggedly defend that position), it now is officially in the the genus Cattleya.

If that weren’t enough story telling for you, there is an even more interesting back story to v. werkhauseri. Back in 1904 this blue flowered form was found in the state of Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil by Karl Werkhauser. He found two clones labeled I and II. The first was a not so great flower but the second was wonderful, so he called it ‘Superba’. Anyway, plants were never sold or given to anyone except at his death in 1914 – his son got the poor flowered plant and his daughter the good one. The son apparently got off his division quickly, but the daughter kept the other under lock and key for another 40 years! After some crazy negotiations with local orchid lovers she finally sold the plant for serious money. Apparently all the plants we know as v. werkhauseri today are descended from that original 5 bulb division (she kept many more for herself). Because of her selfish attitude this form got the nickname, “The Witch’s Jewel”.

Laelia purpurata growth habit
Cattleya purpurata has a growth form typical of single leaf (unifoliate) Cattleya species and can grow very large, up to 60 cm in total length.

In nature this species is found in the coastal forests of southern Brazil in the states of São Paulo, Santa Catarina, and Rio Grande do Sul. It’s distribution is somewhat disjunct starting in the north between Rio de Janeiro and Porto Novo, picking up again around Praia Grande south to Cananéia (São Paulo State), skipping Paraná State, and starting up again south of Joinville (Santa Catarina State) to the vicinity of Tramandai (Rio Grande do Sul State).

It is said to grow on rocky shores close to the ocean, especially on big fig trees, in nearly full sun conditions. These coastal rain forests have undergone vast changes since people have been living in them for a long time. It is said that Ficus trees are favored by some native people, not only for their fruits, but for cultural reasons, and are left uncut. For this reason, many large fig trees grow to massive size, and it is here that the orchids find a home.
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A Japanese azalea temple garden, Daikozenji

On the border of Saga and Fukuoka Prefectures in northern Kyushu, is the “tsutsuji temple”, Daikozenji. Tsutsuji is the general term used for azaleas in the Japanese language, and this temple is stuffed full of them such that in late April and early May the place is aflame with their flowers. During this season thousands flock to the wooded slopes where the temple sits, nestled in a forest of cedar and maple trees, to view the spectacle. This temple has a history dating back nearly 1300 years, and is associated with the Tendai Sect, a form of Mahayana Buddhism. The various temple buildings are built at the base of Chigiriyama (“Pledge or Promise Mountain”).

Though the temple is a tourist attraction these days, it remains nevertheless a religious sanctuary where prayers are given to ward off evil, to ensure traffic safety, and to keep families safe. As with other Buddhist temples in Japan, death and funeral rites are a major focus as well (compared to Shinto shrines which are involved with traditional marriages).

Azalea Temple Garden
Daikozenji, the “azalea temple” is crammed full of azaleas and maple trees. The visual impact in late April is astounding.

Nowadays Daikozenji is best known for its mass plantings of azalea bushes – all 50,000 of them! The temple grounds cover some 75,000 square meters, or just about 18.5 acres. Much of the area behind the temple buildings (the bulk of the property) is literally covered in azaleas under a canopy of Japanese cedar (Cryptomeria japonica), hinoki cypress (Chamaecyparis obtusa), various native hardwoods (notably Castanopsis sieboldii), and a variety of maples (said to number 500 in all).

Paths lead up the mountain to various scenic points, including one hill that is resplendent with azaleas under a thin canopy of trees – the main spectacle of the garden. Elsewhere the pattern is pretty simple – forest under-planted with azalea bushes, most standing one to two meters tall, in a near continuous patch. Here and there one can see the native Rhododendron known as shakunage in Japanese, R. degronianum, as well as two Viburnums, V. japonicum and V. plicatum.

Just behind the temple buildings is a little vale that serves as the center of the garden. Here the cedar trees are bit larger and maples abound, creating a cathedral-like atmosphere. Here too are the ever present azaleas, viburnums, and a smattering of other plants including Calanthe orchids. Plant diversity is highest in this area though this garden is not known for great variety. Here too are ten wooden flower viewing houses, one of which is open to the public during flowering season. The other nine are rented out for private parties. They sit on platforms hanging off the hillside and have windows all around allowing for excellent views. Small streams gurgle down past them into pools full of koi. Without a doubt this part of the garden is the most magical.

Azalea Hill Daikozenji
One of Daikozenji’s featured attractions is a hillside literally covered in azaleas under a high canopy of Japanese cedar trees.

The main group of azaleas began to be planted during the late Taisho period (1912-1926) and by 1950 Daikozenji became famous for its spring flowering display. In 1957 it was given its nickname “azalea temple” (tsutsuji tera) by Kurume City’s Rotary Club. Since that time its fame has grown and now is one of those must see places in the local region. It’s parking lot is huge, stuffed with private vehicles and tour buses during the main flowering period (late April) and again in mid November (when the maple trees show their fall colors).

Check out this video of Daikozenji in late April – in it you’ll see hirado tsutsuji in flower, Calanthe sieboldii and C. discolor, and the fresh green leaves of spring:

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Endangered Calanthe orchids from the Izu Islands, C. izu-insularis and its hybrids

The Izu Island chain spreads south of the Kanto region of Honshu for more than 400 km in a near north-south orientation, bounded on the west by the Philippine Sea, and to the east by the Pacific Ocean. They are know for their distinctive culture, dolphins, beaches, and volcanic activity, but there also exists an endemic orchid on three of the islands that is found nowhere else in the world, the fragrant Calanthe, C. izu-insularis.

Here too is the closely related species, C. discolor, and the resulting hybrid between the two, C. Koozu. Today both C. izu-insularis and C. Koozu are rare as hen’s teeth in their native forests, however, Calanthe enthusiasts have managed to successfully propagate them by seed in large quantity, thus ensuring their continued survival.

Calanthe izu-insularis flowers
While the flowers of Calanthe izu-insularis are attractive, they are collected by Japanese growers for their incredible floral fragrance.

Calanthe izu-insularis is an evergreen terrestrial orchid of subtropical woodlands. In appearance the plant is nearly indistinguishable from related species, with each growth typically supporting two, sometimes three, heavily pleated, glaucous leaves, 15-35 cm long and 7-15 cm wide. These are born near to the ground and grow off a chain of underground pseudobulbs that are ribbed and rounded, giving the appearance of a shrimp’s body, hence the common Japanese name for the genus, ebine, or “shrimp root”. The roots are numerous, light brown in color, and mostly unbranched. In April the flower stalk arises from the center of the leaves to height of 30 to 60 cm, and can hold up to as many as 30 or more small purple and white flowers.

The flowers are typically not more that 4 cm across. The sepals and petals are pointed, splayed out star-like, and slightly recurved backward a the margins. Each is around 2 cm long and half again as wide. They are generally a light purple to lavender color with a hint of brown or orange suffused throughout. Lighter colored lines, appearing nearly white, commonly streak them as well. The lip and column are pure white, except for a small crest on the midrib on the upper lip that is lemon yellow. The lip has three lobes, two large lateral ones and a much smaller central one that is slightly bifurcated . They all point more or less downward. Each flower is graced also with a distinctive spur or nectary, that is often perfectly straight and stretches back toward the flower stalk, typically extending just beyond it.

Calanthe izu-insularis spur
The nectary or spur of Calanthe izu-insularis is long and basically straight in most specimens.

Its Japanese name is nioiebine, literally meaning “fragrant shrimp root” since the flowers give off an amazing floral scent that can be detected from a long distance away. In the Kanto region they are very popular and entire orchid shows are dedicated to them, not for their flower shape or color, but rather the quality of their scent. I would say they have a floral scent as opposed to a sweeter scent, as is common with other native Japanese Calanthe. Each plant has subtle differences in odor, not just in the strength, but also in the quality.

This species is found exclusively in the evergreen broad leaf forests of just three islands, all in the northern part of the Izu chain – Koozujima, Mikurajima, and Niijima. For this reason, this species has always been a rarity. Consider that the area in question is just a bit larger than Manhattan Island, totaling only 63 square kilometers (compared to Manhattan’s 59.5 square kilometers). While these islands yet contain plenty of habitat, over collection in past years has all but wiped them out from the wild. Currently they are listed as endangered status by the Japanese government, but in truth you’d be lucky indeed to see one growing in its native home anymore. For the very same reason, the natural hybrid between this species and C. discolor, C. Koozu, is a near ghost on the islands today as well.

Calanthe Kozu
Calanthe Koozu is the natural hybrid of C. izu-insularis and C. discolor. This clone has the typical color pattern for the hybrid, but its flower is much larger than most than since it is an artificially bred triploid.

Calanthe Koozu, is obviously named after the island it was first found. C. discolor is a widespread and common species found throughout most of Japan, Korea and parts of China. The flower of C. Koozu generally has more rounded and wider flower parts than C. izu-insularis, and the sepal and petal color tends to be a more rich, pure purple shade. The lip as well tends to be broader, reminiscent of C. discolor. In many specimens the lip is white, but often has more yellow on its crest and sometimes purple as well. The spur tends to be shorter than in C. izu-insularis and often has a curve to it. Having said all that, variation in color and form can be quite different from plant to plant, possibly due to back crossing and also because of the variability of C. discolor. So, flowers can have thin or wide segments, bicolored flowers to pure white ones, or ones fully suffused with purple, and so on. The flower’s fragrance can be floral, or in some cases have a much more sweet component. It is a real mixed bag – peruse the photos to see this great variation.
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A dwarf white orchid flower from Central America, Epidendrum trialatum

A fascinating and lovely little orchid from Central America is the little known species Epidendrum trialatum. This species is interesting in that it possesses pure white crystalline flowers – an oddity for a genus that boasts blossoms of almost any color of the rainbow except pure white. It belongs to the group of Epidendrums known as reed stem orchids since the elongated cane or pseudobulb and alternating leaves looks something like a reed.

This is an epiphytic, dwarf evergreen orchid of warm tropical rain forests. It is a clump forming species with cane-like pseudobulbs ranging from 6-20 cm long at flowering size, and each holding between 3-5 leaves. These canes are somewhat zig-zag in shape, and are segmented with each bearing a sheath, short petiole, and one succulent leaf. The leaves are simple, elongate, blunt tipped, with a distinct midrib, each 3-10 cm long and 0.6-1.5 cm wide. They are a pleasant light apple green, and somewhat shiny. The roots are numerous, white, wiry, and branch less. Both canes and roots are borne off short, stout, and highly branched rhizomes.

Epidendrum trialatum plant
Epidendrum trialatum is a clumping species that looks like an alba flowered form of E. difforme.

The flowers of E. trialatum are its most startling feature. They are produced at the terminus of each cane only, borne singly or at most four (perhaps 5?) in number in a loose clump. The overall flower shape is typical for the genus, with a relatively large, broad lip that is bilobed, three sepals all similar in size and shape, and two very narrow, wire-like petals. Each flower is approximately 3 cm long vertically, and 2 cm across horizontally. The flowers are a pure, startlingly white color throughout. They are pungently sweet, with a hint of spice, and give off most of their fragrance at night.

This is an orchid of warm rain forests and deciduous forests on the Pacific side of Panama at altitudes between 500-1000 meters, as well as the Cordillera de Tilarán in Costa Rica. I can find no other reliable reports of it growing in other parts of Central or South America.

Epidendrum trialatum flower
Epidendrum trialatum has pristine white flowers, unusual for an Epidendrum.

This dwarf orchid is remarkably similar looking to Epidendrum difforme, a species that was once considered a highly variable plant found throughout tropical America. In the 1980s and 1990s many of these forms (20 or more!) were partitioned out as separate entities, notably by Robert L. Dressler and Eric Hágsater, and now comprise a group known as the “Epidendrum difforme complex”. In fact it was Hágsater who described E. trialatum in 1984 as a new species from Panama. One of the distinguishing characteristics of this species is the hood that covers the column of the flower – it is frilled at the end, and its lateral lobes as well are serrated. See this link to view Kew’s specimen details on this species.
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Cypripedium parviflorum v. parviflorum, the small yellow lady slipper

There exists a small flowered form of yellow lady slipper orchid occurring over much of the northern US, across southern and central Canada, as far south as the northern Rocky Mountains, and northward to the Yukon and northern Alaska. It is the well known, but not often encountered, Cypripedium parviflorum v. parviflorum. In appearance it looks very close to the European species, C. calceolus, and in fact until fairly recently was considered a variety of that species.

Without a doubt, C. parviflorum is the most variable Cypripedium species both in terms of morphology and habitat preference in North America. In all not less than two dozen names have been given to this species at the level of specific or varietal rank – a tribute to the variation within plants seen in the field. This has lead some authors to consider C. parviflorum to be either a very diverse grouping of one species, or on the other extreme, to place them into a number of different species and/or varieties. Today, most botanists have agreed to disagree and call all North American plants C. parviflorum, with at most three varieties in existence: two small flowered plants, v. parviflorum and v. makasin, and one larger flowered form, v. pubescens.

Cypripedium parviflorum plants
Cypripedium parviflorum v. makasin is a small slipper orchid of North America. In coloring it is very similar to the Eurasian C. calceolus, and for many years all North American plants were considered varieties of that species. Grown and photographed by Darcy Gunnlaugson.

To further confound things, even the small flowered plants don’t quite fit any easy classification. The one attribute that seems constant across the range of plants now known as v. parviflorum and v. makasin is they all have smaller flowers when compared to the larger flowered v. pubescens. In fact it is this attribute that in the end holds this rather uncertain classification scheme together. For purposes of horticultural interest, I will speak of the two small flowered forms as distinct varieties since they clearly are different in form and cultural needs.

The small yellow lady slipper is a perennial, deciduous, terrestrial orchid of generally moist to wet habitats. Like the flower, the plants tend to be smaller in size compared to v. pubescens, averaging between 15-30 cm tall, with v. makasin commonly being a smaller plant than v. parviflorum. The thin stem is lightly pubescent and usually carries 3-4 lanceolate leaves held opposite each other, 3-10 cm long, and 1-3 cm wide. They are usually a pleasing apple green and also are lightly pubescent. The rhizome is thick and clumping with numerous roots.

One or two flowers (rarely three) grace the apex of the stem, each attended by one floral bract. The flowers are small, not more than 4.5 cm in total spread, and often smaller. The dorsal sepal is held more or less erect and is often twisted with undulating margins, 2-4 cm long and around 2 cm wide. The synsepal is similar in shape, but is held much more flat than the dorsal sepal, and is bifurcated at its apex. The slightly descending petals are relatively long and narrow, and twist 2-4 times forming a light braid, 3-5 cm long and less than 1 cm wide. The lip averages not more than 3 cm in length and in extreme specimens can be half that size. It ranges from ovoid to ellipsoid in shape and has a small orifice. The staminode is elongate and roughly triangular in shape.

Flower color is somewhat variable except that the lip is virtually always a clear, rich lemon yellow. The sepals and petals tend to be similarly colored on any given plant with a light green-yellow base color, and yet looking brown to dark brown in overall color. This is due to spotting and blotching of said flower parts, forming anything from a near pure dark purple-brown look (typical of v. makasin) to a more striated pattern. The lip is often spotted and blotched with crimson or brick red, especially in its interior and around the orifice margins. In extreme examples this red blotching can occur over the entire lip – a more common occurrence in western forms of v. makasin. The yellow staminode as well is often blotched with crimson. Variety makasin is well know for its intensely sweet odor, while v. parviflorum has a more subtle floral scent.

Cypripedium parviflorum v. makasin eastern form
The eastern form of Cypripedium parviflorum v. makasin has a very consistent appearance with dark colored sepals and petals and red blotching confined to the interior of the lip, lip orifice, and staminode. These eastern plants are commonly seen in wet habitats on calcareous substrates. Grown and photographed by Ron Burch.

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