In the warm temperate woods of southern and central Japan exist two beautiful terrestrial orchids, Calanthe discolor and C. sieboldii, as well as their natural hybrid, C. x bicolor. C. discolor still exists in some quantity in the wild, but C. sieboldii as well as their hybrid have been collected almost to the point of extinction. Even to this day plants routinely “disappear” from their mountain homes, often ending up for sale at roadside vendors and orchid shows. Let’s have a look at the most common of the three first, C. discolor.
C. discolor is a conspicuous and showy orchid species. The leaves are evergreen and deeply ribbed giving them a pleated look. Each is 10-30 cm long and 5-10 cm wide. Most growths have only two leaves, but as many as four are possible. The relatively small subterranean pseudobulbs are round and have ribs, growing in a chain, so people thought they looked like shrimp, hence the Japanese name ebine, meaning literally “shrimp root”.
From the center of each growth an unbranched flower stalk arises to the height of 15-35 cm and can sport anywhere from 5 to 20 bicolored flowers. Each flower is about 3 cm across and has a rounded look with the sepals and petals being the same color and similar in shape and size. The lip is three lobed and a different color. The lateral lobes are broad, with rounded edges and are smooth. The central lobe is lightly to deeply ribbed with varying numbers of protrusions. It is often lobed at its end as well. The column is large and knob-like and is usually the same color as the lip. Flower color can vary widely with the typical flower having a white lip with pale purple markings (sometimes yellow as well) and the sepals and petals being a shade of greenish-brown. Having said that I’ve seen flowers ranging from the typical type to ones with pure white lips with green sepals and petals, others with purplish lips with chocolate brown sepals and petals, and ones completely suffused with purple.
This species grows in a variety of habitats including wet to moist woodlands, conifer plantations, along mountain streams, on tops of mountain ridges, and on seepage slopes. It can be found throughout the warmer temperate regions of Japan from Kyushu to southern Hokkaido. Plants can be single growths or make large clumps in time with 20 or more flowering stems.
This is the most widespread and common species of Calanthe in Japan. It is capable of living in a diverse range of habitats, and is one of the few orchid species that can live in tree plantations. The flowers are often, but not always, showy. Many are pale, greenish and white in color, and therefore easy to miss in the dim forest light. Others are remarkably beautiful and highly coveted by plant collectors. It is unfortunate that in this day where micropropagation of terrestrial orchids is common, plants are still being taken from the wild. Those near trails are most vunerable and in the 9 years I’ve been watching they continue to diminish in number year by year. Many of these end up at roadside markets or are sold on internet auctions. Some years ago, I found a large colony with a great variety of color forms, huge clumped plants, and even the natural hybrid between C. discolor and C. sieboldii, C. x bicolor. The plants are OK so far, but I wonder how long they will remain unharmed.
I’ve seen catalogs full of Calanthe for sale, including many wild species. How many of these were wild collected? Very likely all of them. In spring roadside vegetable markets offer plants for relatively high prices and they often have poor quality flowers. This definitely points to the probability they were wild collected – why would you propagate a poor flower? Still, given the plant’s ability to grow in many places over a wide range, their future seems fairly secure for the time being, but for how much longer? I would say that easily accessible populations have reduced by close to 50% locally over the past 9 years. That’s a pretty scary statistic.
C. sieboldii is a much bigger plant than C. discolor. The leaves are similar to C. discolor, but larger, up to 15-40 cm long and 8-15 cm wide. The flower stalk arises to the height of 45 cm or more and can sport anywhere from 5 to 25+ yellow flowers. Each is about 3-5 cm across and uniformly colored pale yellow to brilliant lemon yellow. The sepals and petals are more pointed than in C. discolor and longer. The lip is three lobed with the lateral lobes being broad, and having rounded smooth edges. The central lobe is lightly to deeply ribbed with varying numbers of linear protrusions. It is often lobed at its end as well. The column is large and knob-like. Some plants also have red-brown markings on the underside of the column and on the protrusions of the lip.
In all respects the plant is very similar to its near relative C. discolor , but is usually larger in size and more spectacular. The flowers can be very sweet smelling, while others have just a trace of scent. Plants can be single growths or make large clumps.
This species prefers wet to moist woodlands, along mountain streams, and seepage slopes, and even is reported from high mountain meadows in tall grass. It is found only in the warmer parts of western Japan from Kyushu and Shikoku to western Honshu (Shimane, Shizuoka, Wakayama, and Yamaguchi Prefectures), and some islands just off the coast. It has also been reported from the southern end of the Korean peninsula. A larger growing variety, v. kawakamiense, is found on Taiwan and some consider it a separate species. It certainly is large, with heights up to one meter tall recorded.
This is one of Japan’s most spectacular terrestrial species, and truly lives up to the Greek derived name Calanthe, meaning “beautiful flower”. It lovely both in and out of flower, the flowers are long lasting and gorgeous. There really is nothing negative you could say about it. Unfortunately, this has lead to its demise in the wild since plants are under heavy collecting pressure throughout its range (I’ve heard this from all sources). In fact, I’ve only seen it once in the wild on a very popular mountain in the Fukuoka area, and that plant has been poached. In May 2004 I was walking up a steep slope in a little ravine when I came across a large two growth plant on the brink of a stream. I was both surprised and greatly pleased to have the chance to see this rarity, and was further rewarded a short time later when I found a colony of green flowered C. x bicolor just upstream. That was a banner day!
The next spring I eagerly returned to photograph the plant again, but when I got to the little bend the stream where the plant had once been, all I found was a hole, a few broken roots, and some old leaves. It had been collected perhaps just a few days or hours earlier. I was fuming mad. Being in a hurry that day, I couldn’t find the C. x bicolor colony either. I wasn’t worried though since those plants were farther from the trail in a very difficult to reach spot. In May 2006 I went back and searched for the plants, and after hours of combing the entire area, I found nothing. Apparently these too were taken, probably at the same time as the C. sieboldii.
Here’s a video of me looking for this species in the wilds of Fukuoka Prefecture in 2013 – in the vid you’ll get to see many plants in the local area plus whether or not I found any C. sieboldii…
I used to live in an apartment complex in the shadows of that mountain, and there was a large bed of C. sieboldii in the front garden. It is very likely they were taken years ago from the same mountain. Given this situation, the species’ future in the wilds of Japan is dim indeed. It will no doubt grace the gardens of this country for years to come, but few will dwell in their mountain homes except in the most remote locations. On a brighter note, I have cross pollinated several of my plants and they readily set seed. The seeds have been sown into known Calanthe locations in hard to access areas in the hope to get this plant going again in the woods of Fukuoka.
C. x bicolor is the natural hybrid between C. discolor and C. sieboldii, and is very similar in appearance to its parents. The difference can be seen in the flowers. These are often similar in shape to C. sieboldii, but they are usually light yellow and red-brown. The sepals and petals are typically one shade of red-brown with some plants being darker than others. The lip is commonly light yellow, but can be pale to the point of appearing almost white or a darker yellow like its parent C. sieboldii. The lip can also have varying amounts of red-brown markings. Having said all that, the plants can have flowers that look identical to either parent. Furthermore, pure green forms exist as well! Yes, it is confusing, but when you see an intermediate plant (as the ones pictured here) it is easy to recognize that it is a hybrid.
Here’s another video of searching for C. sieboldii in the same valley as the above video, plus a mixed colony of C. discolor and C. x takane on another mountain:
This hybrid is found where both parent species are present, that being the warmer temperate regions of western Japan from Kyushu and Shikoku to western Honshu (Shimane, Wakayama and Yamaguchi Prefectures), and possibly also South Korea’s southern end.
This plant has caused quite a bit of confusion. It is often listed as a variety of C. discolor, and for a long time it was considered synonymous with C. sieboldii (actually, until recently C. sieboldii wasn’t recognized as an official taxon and therefore both the hybrid and C. sieboldii were placed under the species C. striata). One thing is certain, these plants do exist in nature and in places where both parents are potentially present. Taxonomy aside, the plant itself is very distinctive, and there is no doubt of its identity when you see one. This hybrid is also sometimes sold under the name C. x Takane to further confuse all concerned.
I have been lucky to find a small group flourishing beside a large colony of C. discolor on a mountain nearby my house. I have seen no plants of C. sieboldii in the immediate vicinity. What does that mean? There are three possibilities: maybe pollen was brought from a distant plant by a pollinator, perhaps the C. sielboldii plants were collected from the site, and finally, perhaps I just haven’t found the “missing” plants yet. Folks from the area tell me that several of the local mountains used to be covered in Calanthe, including C. sieboldii, but that was 30 or more years ago. Recently, I’ve been told of a surviving colony on a more distant mountain, but I wonder how long it will persist.
Fortunately, all three are easy to grow and bloom. Like most terrestrial orchids, they like a well draining yet water retentive growing medium. I grow mine in a mix of coarse pumice (0.5-1.0 cm diameter), bark, and a little humus. I don’t use more than 30% organic material to avoid rot problems. They can grow in very wet conditions in the wild, however that isn’t necessary or advised in cultivation. Don’t give them any sun, but rather a nice cool shady place (anywhere woodland ferns like, these will like too). They are also excellent garden subjects requiring no special treatment, provided the bed is well constructed.
Any reasonable fertilizer can be applied, starting just after flowering and continuing into mid fall when the plant is forming next year’s growth and flower buds. I use pelletized organic fertilizer that is pretty mild. They are fairly cold hardy, certainly through USDA cold hardiness zones 7-9, and even colder with adequate winter mulching. It is important to note that these are temperate plants, and require a true winter cool down with temperatures averaging 10 C (50 F) or lower for 2-3 months. C. sieboldii is supposed to be more cold sensitive, however I’ve heard of reports of people growing them in USDA zone 6 in America with lots of winter mulching. In time all can grow into nice clumps.
There is one issue with Japanese Calanthe that has to be taken very seriously – virus. This is an uncomfortable topic with plant growers since a virused plant left alone in a collection can literally kill every plant within a short time. Suffice it to say, if you see extreme anomalies in flower color, especially streaking or color breaks, or more importantly, if you see white, linear streaking on the leaves, then that plant should be destroyed immediately. Either throw it away in the domestic trash (don’t compost it!) or burn it on an open fire. The compost too should be thrown away and the pot destroyed as well or put into a strong bleach solution.
Never prune Calanthe plants without heat sterilizing the scissors or shears when moving on to another plant. Spotting on the flowers (usually a paler color) commonly happens when water gets on the buds and isn’t an indication of virus. This is a complicated topic and deserves an article of its own.
Despite the problem of virus,these plants are truly rewarding and relatively easy to grow in a warm, humid climate or as a greenhouse plant. If the proper care is taken, they rate as a fairly easy to grow terrestrial orchid.