Two “helleborine” orchids from Japan, genus Cephalanthera

Two remarkable and lovely partially saprophytic orchids adorn the woodlands of Japan, Cephalanthera erecta, and its bigger and more showy cousin, Cephalanthera falcata.  They are lovely and yet enigmatic in cultivation, presumably due to a tight relationship they have with soil fungal symbionts.  European species of this genus are called helleborine.

Cephalanthera erecta is a deciduous woodland perennial plant, standing from 7 to 30 cm tall.  The leaves are arrayed around a thin, upright, pubescent stem in an alternating and staggered pattern.  Each leaf is bright green and elongated coming to a point, and is anywhere from  5-15 cm long and 1-3 cm wide.  They are deeply veined and pubescent and look much like a Cypripedium leaf.  In early May the flowers are held at the top of the stem in a loose group, pointing more or less in the same direction.  They are 2 cm long and brilliant white, and almost don’t open.  Each has a little green spur at the bottom of the lip.  Plants occur singly or in loose groups, occasionally forming colonies in the hundreds.

Cephalanthera erecta in habitat
Cephalanthera erecta can be found in dark forests and and growing in grass on sunny roadsides.

The common form of this species usually occurs in moist dark woodlands and woodland edges, but sometimes is found on grassy embankments of roadsides and trails.  While it is found throughout Honshu, Shikoku, and Kyushu it is absent from Hokkaido.  Another variety, sometimes considered a separate species, v. subaphylla, extends into Hokkaido a well.  Both are very similar looking.

I first saw this unassuming little plant at the edge of a forest in tall grass.  It was tiny, standing no more than 7 cm high.  A search of the surrounding area for more proved fruitless.  A couple years later I found more plants flowering in a deep, dark woodland not more than a five minute bike ride from my front door!  The plants I’ve seen are remarkably small and they can be noticed mostly due to their brilliant white flowers looking like little pearls in the dim forest light.  The plant itself looks much like a Cypripedium or Epipactis, but the flowers are a dead give away.

This species, along with all other members of this genus, are thought to be at least partially dependent on soil fungi for their nutrition, hence they are semi-saprophytic, or more accurately partially ectoparasitic on the fungus.  This is surprising due to their bright green leaves.  At least one member of this genus is fully ectoparasitic, the North American C. austinaeC. erecta is a small plant and not very desirable as a garden subject, therefore I suspect it will have a secure future in Japan.

Cephalanthera erecta flowers
The flowers of Cephalanthera erecta never truly open. You can see the little green spur at the base of the flower.

C. falcata is very similar to C. erecta, standing from 20 to 40 cm tall.  The leaves grow in an alternating pattern around a robust, pubescent stem.  Each leaf is deeply veined and pubescent, looking much like a Cypripedium leaf, being 5-18 cm long and 2-5 cm wide.  They overlap each other such that the bulk of the stem isn’t visible.  In fact the plant itself looks nearly identical to Cypripedium californicum. The flowers are held at the top of the stem in a fairly tight group and facing upward.  They are large, showy, and bright yellow and are  2-3cm across.  Unlike C. erecta the flowers open more fully, but remain cupped.

The sepals and petals are brilliant yellow with broad segments that curve inward toward the center of the flower (hence the name falcata which means sickle shaped).  The lip is broad, but curled upward at the margins, and thus forming a near tube.  It is highly veined with red-orange and has a small knob-like spur at its base.  If the flower opened more it might give the impression of being a Cymbidium.  Despite the cupped shape, it is very attractive. Plants occur singly or in loose groups, and can form small clumps.

Cephalanthera falcata in habitat
Cephalanthera falcata is usually found in woodlands, but can be seen in grassy areas occasionally. The plant looks much like some Cypripedium species.

Like C. erecta, it is most often seen in moist open woodlands and woodland edges, but also in conifer plantations, and occasionally in grassy areas near woods.  It seems to have a preference to grow under or near Japanese red pine (Pinus densiflora).  It found throughout Japan except Hokkaido;  also Korea and China.

This is a much larger and more showy version of its close relative C. erecta.  In my experience it is also more rare, being found scattered about here and there throughout the open woodlands of Fukuoka.  Again, like C. erecta, the plant looks remarkably like a Cypripedium when not in flower.  When you come up on a flowering plant in a bright spot in the forest it is a memorable experience.  The brilliant yellow flower clusters can be seen from a great distance, making it one of Japan’s more showy terrestrial species.  It is becoming more rare with time since plant collectors and misguided souls are removing plants from the wild.  In my travels I’ve only seen it in flower a handful of times, but it is widespread throughout the area based on other nonflowering plants growing here and there.  Given the beauty of this plant, it is susceptible to collection, and is threatened throughout much of its range in Japan.

The Japanese names for these species are straight forward:  ginran (C. erecta) and kinran (C. falcata), simply meaning “silver orchid” and “golden orchid”, respectively.  Both flower in early May, exactly during Golden Week, an important Japanese holiday season.  That is funny to me because Japanese people are very fixated on doing things at the proper time – there are proper seasons to climb a particular mountain for instance, or eat a certain food.  Well, especially C. falcata, kinran, is very proper in flowering during Golden Week, so for certain it is a most Japanese plant.

There is a bunch of conflicting information about growing both species successfully in culture.  Despite their  robust green leaves, they are at least partially ectoparasitic on soil fungi.  Some say that it is impossible grow them in the long run due to this affiliation with soil fungi, while others say they are grown fairly easily.  I have tried growing C. falcata a couple times, but never successfully beyond a handful of seasons.  One grower advised that I get humus from under a red pine (Pinus densiflora) to incorporate into the growing media since the fungal symbiont was known to live in their dead needles.  The plants persisted for a time but in the end it didn’t work.  Like other terrestrial orchids, both are capable of going dormant for years underground, presumably living off the nutrients provided by its fungal symbiont.  I suspect that if you can maintain the fungi, you will have success with these plants, but only then.

Cephalanthera falcata flowers
Cephalanthera falcata has bright yellow flowers, hence its Japanese name which means “golden orchid”.

These would make wonderful container plants if you could figure out how to keep them going with or without their fungal friends.  For that reason, I suspect they will remain rare in cultivation, with just a handful of terrestrial orchid “nuts” attempting to keep them.  I do believe it can be done, but not without know how and effort.


4 Replies to “Two “helleborine” orchids from Japan, genus Cephalanthera”

  1. Tom- I just discovered your website and I’m addicted.I’ve been growing hardy terrestrial orchids for almost 50 yrs.I was sent 2ea.of a number of Japanese species back in the 70’s most of which still grow in the garden but the cephalanthera erecta has actually become invasive coming up everywhere and escaping the garden to the surrounding wood and near the house foundation. It was interesting to here of its relative scarcity in the wild and difficult culture. I have no explanation other than to say there is still a lot we don’t know about orchid culture. keep those videos coming. It reminds me of my youth.

    1. Hi Paul,

      Great to hear that you are enjoying the site and video channel. Fascinating too that you have C. erecta growing like a weed! I suspect it is very similar to Epipactis helleborine in that respect – if you have the right soil fungi, etc. then it can be almost weedy. Just curious, who did you get your Japanese orchids from?


  2. Hi Tom- I got my orchids from a gentleman named Tatsuo Niizuma. If he is still around, he would be very old.He also visited me here in the states and gave me the design for my courtyard garden.We lost touch over the years remember this was back in the 70s.

  3. Tom- by the way I do have the same problem with Epipactis heleborine. A number of the species have seeded in over the years although not as aggressively as the C. erecta .

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