A miniature twayblade from Japan, Listera makinoana

Here’s a brief article about a truly lilliputian orchid, Listera makinoana.  This little plant is so small that finding it in its native haunts is a task for sore eyes.  I’ve been lucky enough to stumble upon just one small colony to date.

Listera makinoana is a tiny species standing no more than 10 cm tall.  Two small heart-shaped leaves straddle a thin, hairy stem opposite each other and near to the ground.  They are shiny, yet look ribbed due to three main veins traveling from their base and ending at the tip.  Along these veins the leaf color is more whitish, hence giving a false sense of variegation to the leaf.  The leaf margins are also distinctly uneven, almost toothed, not unlike some members of the genus Liparis.

Listera makinoana plant
The Japanese name for Listera makinoana is aofutabaran, meaning “two blue leafed orchid”.

Despite the plant’s small size it can sport up to twenty emerald green flowers.  The flower’s broad lip is cleft in the middle thus forming two rounded lobes.  The flowers bloom sequentially, yet all can be in flower at one time.  Remarkably, the peak of flowering season is late July.  It probably spreads by underground rhizomes forming colonies that are in fact just a few individuals.

This miniature terrestrial orchid is confined to the mountains of Japan from Kyushu and Shikoku northward through Honshu to the southern Tohoku Region.  Locally I’ve found it on only one mountain, but it is considered a fairly common species in parts of its range.  It grows in moist rich woods.

Listera makinoana flowers
The flower spike of Listera makinoana is tiny – despite having many flowers it stands only 6 cm tall!

I made acquaintance with this little species the first time in 2004 after a long and exhausting hike.  I was nearly running down a steep trail when my gaze struck something very unusual to my right. I caught a fleeting image of a Listera in bloom, but that was impossible since plants in that genus bloom in early spring and here it was nearly August!  I stopped immediately and quickly found two small plants in flower.  They were remarkably tiny, no more than 6 cm tall, flower-stalk and all.  Amazing! Each sported many little bright emerald green flowers.  My mind wobbled: Listera in flower in the dead heat of summer?  A fast search of the area revealed no other plants, but I marked the place in my mind.

The following year I was unable to see the plants again, and the subsequent year I couldn’t find the original specimens I saw two years earlier.  Instead I found a very small patch a few meters away, all out of bloom or sterile.  I’ve spent hours trying to find additional plants, but this is the only patch I’ve seen in all my travels in the mountains of Fukuoka.  In my book I consider this one a bit of a rarity, at least locally.

I have not seen this species in cultivation.  It perhaps could be tried as a potted plant, kept continuously moist and humid, less it melt away during a dry or hot spell.  It grows from Kyushu to northern Honshu, and so seems indifferent to temperature, though it is definitely a temperate species.

This plant’s names, both the Latin binomial and the Japanese one, are simple, yet interesting.  The genus Listera is named after Dr. Martin Lister, English naturalist and physician, while the specific epithet makinoana is after a different man, the famous Japanese  botanist, Tomitaro Makino.  Sometimes referred to as the “father of Japanese botany”, he was one of the first Japanese botanists to work on classifying plants using Linnaeus’s binomial system.

The Japanese name for this orchid is aofutabaran from the words ao (“blue”), futa (“two”), ba (“leaf”), and ran (“orchid”).  The meaning is simple and descriptive, the “two blue leaved orchid”, a reference to the bluish appearance of the paired leaves .

A beauty?  A cutie?  Worth growing?  These are indeed up to the eyes of the beholder.  It remains a unique, if tiny, member of Japan’s woodland flora.

Listera makinoana plants in habitat
Here is a clump of sterile Listera makinoana on Sefuriyama, Fukuoka Prefecture, Kyushu, Japan. The ten yen coin is about the same size as a US quarter.


5 Replies to “A miniature twayblade from Japan, Listera makinoana”

  1. I have recently bought L. makinoana in pot culture at an exhibition of alpine plants in Hiroshima. This species seems to be rather new in cultivation, because I couldn’t find any tips how to grow it neither in English nor in Japanese sites. The guy who sold me the plant(s) (at a ridiculously low price) warned me it’s difficult.
    For now, it seems healthy and I am expecting it to blossom in a week or two. Unfortunately, I have to rely only on my inner intuition about how to grow it. In this moment it is under the deepest shadow of my garden.

    1. Hey Zheko,

      I’m sure that some Japanese growers have attempted to keep this species, but I also suspect few have been successful for very long. I have only seen it in the wild once growing just over the surface of a volcanic based loam soil in deep shade. I don’t think the roots grew deep into the soil, but rather stayed just below the surface in the rotting leaf cover.

      The plants you bought were wild collected for sure and all I can recommend is to never let them dry out, especially while in growth. I’d also avoid allowing competing plants to surround it, even moss. So, maybe try them in some acidic material such as kanuma with a bit of humus as a top dressing? Beyond that, I cannot comment. Good luck!

      1. Thank you for the advices. This is exactly what I am doing by now (kanuma with excellent drainage, light humus, weak fertilizer, a lot of water and no competition with any other plant) and the plant(s) seem to be healthy. The fact that nothing has changed in bad direction for more than a month provides some evidence that we are right. The only misjudgement I have had so far is about the time of blooming. The blossoming stems developed much slower than I have expected but still, they look healthy and natural.

  2. Cool Zheko,

    Let me know how it flowers for you. Today I’m going to try to find this one in the wild in flower again. No problem, it is supposed to only be 35 degrees today…

  3. Dear Tommy,

    So far everything seems OK. I am surprised how slowly the blossoms are developing. But still, the plants seem to be healthy. Unfortunately, these days are far too hot, I hope that all my garden will be fine.

    Best wishes,


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