To extinction and back again, a rare orchid from Kyushu, Japan

Kyushu, Japan’s southernmost main island is home to an extremely rare orchid species, Odontochilus hatusimanus.  This plant is so rare in fact that it was listed as extinct for several decades before being rediscovered in the late 1990s.  It just so happens that I live right next to a mountain that has one of the remaining populations left in nature.

O. hatusimanus is a low growing evergreen terrestrial orchid.  The ovate leaves originate out of a central growing point and form a small, neat rosette.  They are glossy, dark green, lightly veined, and about 5-6 cm long and 3-4 cm wide.  The rosettes grow from a trailing rhizome that is at or near the surface of the ground.  From the center of the growing point a single hairy branch less flower spike grows to a height of 6-10 cm and sports up to 8 small flowers about 1 cm across each.  The pure white lip is cleft in the center forming two lobes that are slightly serrated. The remaining sepals and petals are covered in long white hairs and are pinkish green in color.  These don’t fully open and thus form a hood-like structure.

Odontochilus hatusimanus plants
A large clump of Odontochilus hatusimanus in habitat, Fukuoka Prefecture, Kyushu.

It is a denizen of wet broad leaf evergreen woodlands of Kyushu Island, Japan, preferring the wettest sites possible, growing nearly in small streams and areas that commonly flood.  In these areas Calanthe reflexa, another terrestrial orchid, grows sympatrically.

This rare delight was first described by science in 1957 and was thought to be extinct, however, just a few decades later it was rediscovered. Currently it is only found at two sites on Kyushu, in Kagoshima and Fukuoka Prefectures.  The first rediscovery was in Kagoshima in 1999, and shortly thereafter in Fukuoka.  It remains critically endangered.

Through shear dumb luck and an observant eye, I stumbled upon a nonflowering plant back in May 2004  on one of the local mountains.  Unfamiliar with the local flora at the time, I wasn’t sure of its identity, but I guessed it to either be related to the genus Goodyera or to be a Goodyera itself.  A search on the internet and consultation with a native orchid expert IDed it as Goodyera foliosa.  I tried to find it in flower later that season, but the only plant I knew of grew no spike that year.

Odontochilus hatusimanus flowering plant
The plant flowers in late July in its native home.

In 2005 I returned in late August and found a small scattered colony already in seed.  That was a bit confusing since G. foliosa was supposed to bloom in August and September along with its cousins G. schlectendaliana and G. velutina, two species found in the general area.  The following year I was determined to photograph the flowers and made repeated trips to the colony starting in mid July.  I was finally rewarded in late July, finding two plants in perfect flower.  I sent the shots off to an orchid friend and he replied that it was not the Goodyera after all, but rather the extremely rare Odontochilus hatusimanus, a species I had never heard of.  What a thrill to have found such a rare species in my own backyard!
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The “only” easy to grow terrestrial orchid – Bletilla striata

Here’s a terrestrial orchid that is not only common, but can also take a fair amount of abuse and live to tell the tale.  The bulbous rhizomes can be packaged for some months, completely rootless, and yet when planted they will grow on and even flower.  Ironically, while this species is so easy to grow and is available at big box stores the world over, it also is very rare in the wild these days. Bletilla striata is a perennial, deciduous orchid of open environments.  The grass-like leaves, numbering between 4-8, grow tightly along a central, thick stem to the height of 30-50 cm on average.  The leaves are bright green and deeply ribbed, giving the overall impression of an unflowering plant as that of a typical palm tree seedling.

Bletilla striata growing in its native habitat in southern Japan, Hiraodai Karst Plateau, Kyushu, Japan.

The flower stalk arises out of the top of the leaves at the apex of the main stem and can extend for another 30 cm or more.  The typically pink-purple flowers occur in an alternating pattern along its length and open sequentually, yet several are in flower at any given time.  The flower stalks start out in a vertical position, but as more flowers open, they tend to sag down and become horizontal to the ground.

Bletilla striata, mixed forms
The author’s garden showing various color forms of Bletilla striata growing in one patch.

The flowers, which can number up to 10 or more per stalk, have a very classical orchid shape, something like a Cattleya, and are about 6 cm across.  The sepals and petals are solid pink-purple and are of similar shape and size.  The partially tubular lip is deeply ribbed with a ruffles at the end, and these are often streaked white.  The column is long and descending, becoming broader at its tip.  Plants quickly clump and individuals can number a hundred stems or more in time.

In Japan this species typically flowers from April through May.  Preferring bright environments, it can be found on forest edges, low mountain meadows, rocky cliff faces, marshlands, and along rivers in exposed, sunny environments. River “improvements”, and damn building has lead to the species becoming very rare in nature.
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