A rare cane orchid from Myanmar and western Thailand: Thunia bensoniae

The mountains of western Thailand and Myanmar are home to a long described, yet rare species of cane orchid, Thunia bensoniae. This genus, totally confided to southeast Asia, has only 6 known species and a handful of hybrids. These orchids have a bamboo-like look about them, and are deciduous in the winter months. T. bensoniae is one of the more showy species, sporting large Cattleya-like purple/pink flowers.

Thunia bensoniae flower
The flower of Thunia bensoniae is quite lovely and large, yet rarely does it present itself in a front facing position such as this staked plant.

In late winter or early spring new growths sprout from the base of completely leafless, sheath covered canes. These canes are dark brown and life-less looking. Their base is slightly bulbous and by winter’s end the previous season’s roots are all dead. The curious new growths start as bunches of short leafy bracts and are a light blue green color. As the season progresses, they expand to form an elongated cane-shaped growth with 10 or more lanceolate, yet broad leaves, soft to the touch. The newly formed cane within remains relatively soft as well until full maturity in the fall at which point it hardens off, becoming tough and fibrous.

At the end of their growing cycle buds form at the terminus of the cane. Each cane can sport up to 5 large flowers. The flowers are very showy, yet hang every which way, especially downward. The word “floppy” comes to mind. Not surprisingly, they are best viewed from below. They give off what might be termed an acrid odor – thankfully it is not very strong.

Each flower has the classic orchid blossom shape, as in the genus Cattleya, and is purple/pink. The lip is tubular, with a broad trumpet shape and is lightly frilled with many striations on its inner surface. The inner surface is also covered in yellow-orange tufts and ridges (lamellae) – an aid to ensure pollination. The remaining flower segments are very similar in shape and length and usually are a much paler color than the lip itself, but can be edged in dark purple/pink. In nature they are said to flower in early summer, however, at my house they start growth later than in their native homes and so don’t flower until mid summer.

By late fall the leaves begin to die back. This is not necessarily a function of colder weather, but rather is a natural cycle of their growth. By Christmas time they are fully deciduous and remain dormant for 3 or more months.

Thunia bensoniae new growths
The chubby new growths of Thunia bensoniae initiate at the slightly bulbous base of last years cane.

Thunia bensoniae is native to the western mountains of Thailand and adjacent areas of Myanmar. Some sources list it also native as far east as India and into southern China, but I cannot confirm this.

In nature it can be found growing terrestrially, lithophyically, and epiphytically in monsoonal forest. It is said that the roots of plants growing epiphytically are in thick mats of moss and roots of other epiphytes and not on bare bark. The canes typically grow at a ninety degree angle from their perch or hang down at a slight angle.

I first grew this species two years ago when a friend in Thailand sent me a couple plants. They were in complete dormancy, and except for a trace of green on the bulbous base of the canes, they appeared completely life-less. I called my friend and he laughed and said, “Ah, Thunia are tough as old boots. Don’t worry, they will grow.” I wasn’t much reassured by this, but planted them out in pure sphagnum moss with the hope they might revive. Some weeks later I was surprised at finding new, chubby growths at their bases.

As the plant develops you wonder where the heck it is getting its energy from to put on such impressive growth. New leaves form quickly along the developing cane and roots shoot out in large masses off the base of the new canes. I have found sphagnum to be an excellent choice for growing roots on these plants. By midsummer the flower sheaths begin to form at the end of the newly grown canes.

Thunia bensoniae in flower
The natural stance of the canes of Thunia bensoniae is nearly perpendicular to the ground. As you can see, the flowers too hang downward and are best viewed from below.

The flowers themselves are not a disappointment, but their odd hanging habit is a bit disconcerting. At first I tried to stake the canes in an upward position, but found the flowers oriented themselves any which way – some hung downward and even flopping backward such that they presented themselves upside-down. Clearly, staking wasn’t a good idea. Another plant I allowed to develop naturally, with the canes hanging nearly perpendicular to the ground. This plant’s flowers hung in a more natural manner.

I’ve found this plant to be straightforward in cultivation. In the winter the canes should be kept cool and relatively dry. In early spring I repot them into fresh sphagnum and begin to water them frequently. Soon the new growths begin and at this point I fertilize on a regular basis to ensure plump canes. The mature leaves are rather soft and easily damaged by the elements and insect attack. For that reason I grow them either inside or in a protected place near the eves of my house. Like other orchid plants from monsoonal rain forests, it requires high humidity at all times when in growth. One thing – though this plant hates dry winds it also needs lots of air movement or leaf rots easily form. When in growth keep it on the warm side – between 20 and 30 C being optimal. In winter the dormant canes can handle nearly freezing temperatures, but warmer is better.

Thunia bensoniae mature plant
Here is the matured plant of Thunia bensoniae just before its winter rest.

Propagation of Thunia is supposed to be easy as well. It is said that all you need do is cut an old cane up into pieces such that each has a leaf node. Place these “cuttings” onto a moist surface and new plants will grow out from the nodes. I have not tried this since I have only two plants, but I have noticed that occasionally new plants (called keikis in orchids) will form on uncut canes, usually in late summer or early autumn. I have so far been unsuccessful in separating them to make new plants however – they seem quite tender.

All in all, this is a neat orchid species to keep. Given its relative rarity and somewhat odd flower positioning though, I’d say it will remain mostly a plant for species nuts – self included.


10 Replies to “A rare cane orchid from Myanmar and western Thailand: Thunia bensoniae”

  1. In nature they grow in the moss on the sides of trees and rocks. They dont root to the wood. You see them hanging in the trees and I guess thats why the flowers hang as they do. I have seen Thai growers mount the plants, but they really dont seem to like it much as they dont get enough moisture that way, and become stunted. I like them in pots of moss, and hung up so you can view the blooms from below as they hang. Agreed staking the plants to make the blooms stand up does not work.


  2. Hello? Hope someone responds? Just bought what is described as ‘exotic orchid’ @grocer from Westerlay orchids. It grows like a Thuni? Looks like a corn stalk, about 2 ft tall with 2 new growths @the bottom. I bought it for the green flowers with purple lips, but they are small, only about 1 1/2 to 2 inches wide. Could this be a Thuni? Any help is appreciated! Thx!

  3. Has anyone grown these thunia bensoniae from flask? I bought one and when I finally got around to deflasking it all the foliage had rotted off leaving just the tiny pseudobulbs. Should I wait till they sprout again before watering? I did water them once when I planted them out, but am not sure how to proceed from this point. Any advice would be greatly appreciated.

    1. Dean, this species is naturally deciduous. In my area (southern Japan) it typically defoliates in fall and starts growth again in May. During the dormancy I back off watering it quite a bit, and then keep it evenly moist once it starts growth. Great to hear you got flasked plants of this species! Good luck. Tom

  4. I’m going to try cutting a cane of Epipactis helliborine. Got some plants with very bad roots and they are in spike, which is the worst possible time to transplant. After looking closely at the anatomy, and looking for eyes, I remembered that some dendrobium canes can be cut to make keikis…pulled out the book this info was in (by Rittershausen) and it said this can be done with Thunias as well. I thought perhaps Thunias grow like Epipactis, and that brought me here. It looks like they do..short in the vegetative stage and then “bolting” like lettuce. No bulbous storage organs. Dormant in witer and blooming in late summer. Thank you for this. It has boosted my confidence to try this little experiment.

    1. Hi Anna,

      Both Dendrobium and Thunia “canes” are in fact pseudobulbs – reservoirs of stored nutrients and water. That is why they can act nearly independently from their root systems. They also are persistent, lasting for a year or more. Epipactis is on the other hand fully deciduous, therefore most of the stored energy and water of the plant is in its root stock. So, if you intend to get keiki development from the top growth I think you may be disappointed. Better to try to salvage what roots they have and hope for the best.

      Another thing to consider is collecting seed in the fall. This species readily colonizes disturbed sites like roadsides, garden beds and even lawns. If you spread the seed around the garden I think there may be a good chance you’ll be seeing seedlings within the next year or two. E. helleborine is dependent on soil fungi to grow successfully, even as adults, but many gardens already have the correct fungi. Alternatively, you could collect some soil when you get the seed and sow this alongside the seed into your garden.

      Good luck with your experiment!


  5. Hi I need advice for my thunia…its base rotted and now all I’m left with are two canes .I cut the rotten parts and applied cinnamon but I’m not sure what to do next spring isn’t until another 4 months..

    1. Sorry to hear that. Thunia are tricky to grow correctly. If there are any dormant eyes at the bottom of the remaining canes, they could sprout from there in the spring. I would keep them on the dry side until spring comes and then set them inside a moist tray of sphagnum moss and see what happens. If there are no dormant eyes, they may still grow from the nodes along the canes, but they will start out very small, just like seedlings. Don’t overwater them and hold off the fertilizer too. Once the growths are big enough, repot them and try again. Good luck!

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