Two miniature jewel orchids grace the high ridge lines of the mountains around Fukuoka Prefecture in Kyushu, southern Japan. They are easily missed if you’re in a hurry since neither is usually much larger than a large coin. Both are in the genera Goodyera, a circumboreal genus related to Spiranthes.
Goodyera schlechtendaliana is a dwarf evergreen terrestrial orchid with small rosettes of leaves growing off a partially subterranean and trailing rhizome. These rosettes can be up to 10 cm across in large specimens, but usually are no more than 4-6 cm large. The deep green leaves are patterned with white veins in varying amounts with some intricately ornate while others are almost pure green, and are from 2-5 cm long and 1-3 cm wide.
The unbranched flower stalk starts growing in July. It is strongly pubescent, light green, and rises to a maximum height of 15 cm. The flowers are born in a loose spiral, and yet all face the same direction. They are few in number, anywhere from 3-15, and open sequentially. Although a tiny plant, the flowers are relatively large with some nearly being 2 cm across. They are white with a light pink cast, and the outer surfaces are strongly pubescent. The peak flowering season is August, but trails into September.
The lip, dorsal sepal, and petals form a tight protruding formation with the dorsal sepal and petals making a little hood over the lip whose tip points downward (looking like a little tongue). The lower sepals flare out laterally with a graceful curve and look like wings. The overall impression is of a small white bird in flight. In fact, the Japanese name means “deep mountain quail”, perhaps a reference to the flowers and also the veined leaves which might be thought of as quail wings. Seed formation is rapid, perhaps no more than one month total. After flowering the growth dies and a new set of leaf rosettes form along the rhizome.
This plant is found in moist woodlands, conifer plantations, and ridge-line forests, from sea-level to ~1000 meters throughout central and southern Japan. It is also reported from Korea and China.
This is a small plant with a big name. It is cosmopolitan about its habitat choice, being found at near sea-level to the highest mountain ridge-lines, at least in Kyushu. It is seen most frequently on the very tops of these ridges in relatively dry woods with the caveat that these places can receive 2 meters or more of rain annually. Here it can form extensive, dense colonies, but is most commonly seen sprinkled throughout the woods in loose groups.
Nonflowering plants are the most vigorous vegetatively while ones with flowers have almost reduced leaves. This strategy is similar to the related genus Spiranthes, namely, the plant puts most of it resources into the flowers that season. The largest specimens I’ve seen are further down mountains in wet woods near streams. Here it can grow rosettes 10 cm across. It seems to withstand plantation forest fairly well, and given that ridge-tops are often left in a natural state, this species’ future is secure for now.
Plants are often seen for sale at shows, and these are no doubt wild collected, so it remains vulnerable. The only other threat to it is the destruction caused by wild boars (Sus scrofa leucomystax), called inoshishi in Japan. These animals can rip up acres of woods effectually wiping out whole populations. I have gone to check on groups of plants only to find the delvings of inoshishi where they had once been.
This species is fairly easy to grow and flower. I grow them in mix equivalent to one half perlite and one half leaf mold. Whatever you use it should be free draining yet organically rich. They like bright shade and constant moisture. In winter you can back off on the water a bit and increase light levels as well. Many evergreen Japanese plants can be handled this way since the forests they live in are at least partially deciduous, so during the winter they are almost sunny while in summer they can be deeply shaded.
In late August we go through an extremely hot and dry period and plants are susceptible to attacks by spider mites. Keep a keen eye out for that since these are tiny plants and easily overwhelmed. G. schlechtendaliana can take hot temperatures in stride, but grows best between 25-30C. Winters on ridge-tops are relatively long and severe, so I’d say this species is at least hardy to USDA hardiness zone 7b, possibly lower with mulch. Not a spectacular plant, but a nice addition to any terrestrial orchid collection.
Goodyera velutina too is a dwarf evergreen terrestrial herb, however the small rosettes of leaves are held slightly above ground level on short stems, unlike the previous species. The deep olive green leaves have a velvet-like sheen, and a single bright white vein follows the entire midrib of the leaf. Each one is 1-3 cm long and 1-2 cm wide. The unbranched flower stalk is lightly pubescent, deep maroon, and rises to a maximum height of 10 cm. The flowers all face the same direction. They are few in number, anywhere from 2-12, and open sequentially. The flowers are relatively large, almost 1 cm across. Their base color is white and marked with a deep rosy pink cast.
This species flowers right alongside its more common relative, G. schlechtendaliana, in late August and early September. It is a a true miniature, and prefers to live high up on the very tops of ridge-line forest in the coldest places the Fukuoka area has. Here it can form large colonies with patches of plants numbering a hundred or more, but is most commonly seen singly or in small groups.
It is a most distinctive little plant having truly velvet looking leaves with a nearly electric white line down their centers. The flowers as well are large and a beautiful pink. Unlike many Goodyera it doesn’t tend to grow its leaves directly on the earth, but rather they are perched up a short stem. To date I’ve only seen this species on a few mountains in groups scattered along the highest ridges. Blooming appears to be good for most colonies and pod formation is high, so this species seems to be doing well for now.
This plant is occasionally seen for sale in native plant catalogs and at orchid shows. It grows in climates that would approximate conditions of the mid south in the United States and should be cold hardy to USDA zone 7 at least. It should be grown as per its more common relative. It would be interesting to see if it is easy from seed, however to my knowledge no one is trying to grow it. Minute in stature, but it packs a good punch for such a tiny plant.
Best viewed up close, both species are lovely miniature orchids well suited to container culture for those few diehard terrestrial orchid addicts.
Check out this video of me finding both species on a local mountain – there are a couple surprises in there too!