Endangered Calanthe orchids from the Izu Islands, C. izu-insularis and its hybrids

The Izu Island chain spreads south of the Kanto region of Honshu for more than 400 km in a near north-south orientation, bounded on the west by the Philippine Sea, and to the east by the Pacific Ocean. They are know for their distinctive culture, dolphins, beaches, and volcanic activity, but there also exists an endemic orchid on three of the islands that is found nowhere else in the world, the fragrant Calanthe, C. izu-insularis.

Here too is the closely related species, C. discolor, and the resulting hybrid between the two, C. Koozu. Today both C. izu-insularis and C. Koozu are rare as hen’s teeth in their native forests, however, Calanthe enthusiasts have managed to successfully propagate them by seed in large quantity, thus ensuring their continued survival.

Calanthe izu-insularis flowers
While the flowers of Calanthe izu-insularis are attractive, they are collected by Japanese growers for their incredible floral fragrance.

Calanthe izu-insularis is an evergreen terrestrial orchid of subtropical woodlands. In appearance the plant is nearly indistinguishable from related species, with each growth typically supporting two, sometimes three, heavily pleated, glaucous leaves, 15-35 cm long and 7-15 cm wide. These are born near to the ground and grow off a chain of underground pseudobulbs that are ribbed and rounded, giving the appearance of a shrimp’s body, hence the common Japanese name for the genus, ebine, or “shrimp root”. The roots are numerous, light brown in color, and mostly unbranched. In April the flower stalk arises from the center of the leaves to height of 30 to 60 cm, and can hold up to as many as 30 or more small purple and white flowers.

The flowers are typically not more that 4 cm across. The sepals and petals are pointed, splayed out star-like, and slightly recurved backward a the margins. Each is around 2 cm long and half again as wide. They are generally a light purple to lavender color with a hint of brown or orange suffused throughout. Lighter colored lines, appearing nearly white, commonly streak them as well. The lip and column are pure white, except for a small crest on the midrib on the upper lip that is lemon yellow. The lip has three lobes, two large lateral ones and a much smaller central one that is slightly bifurcated . They all point more or less downward. Each flower is graced also with a distinctive spur or nectary, that is often perfectly straight and stretches back toward the flower stalk, typically extending just beyond it.

Calanthe izu-insularis spur
The nectary or spur of Calanthe izu-insularis is long and basically straight in most specimens.

Its Japanese name is nioiebine, literally meaning “fragrant shrimp root” since the flowers give off an amazing floral scent that can be detected from a long distance away. In the Kanto region they are very popular and entire orchid shows are dedicated to them, not for their flower shape or color, but rather the quality of their scent. I would say they have a floral scent as opposed to a sweeter scent, as is common with other native Japanese Calanthe. Each plant has subtle differences in odor, not just in the strength, but also in the quality.

This species is found exclusively in the evergreen broad leaf forests of just three islands, all in the northern part of the Izu chain – Koozujima, Mikurajima, and Niijima. For this reason, this species has always been a rarity. Consider that the area in question is just a bit larger than Manhattan Island, totaling only 63 square kilometers (compared to Manhattan’s 59.5 square kilometers). While these islands yet contain plenty of habitat, over collection in past years has all but wiped them out from the wild. Currently they are listed as endangered status by the Japanese government, but in truth you’d be lucky indeed to see one growing in its native home anymore. For the very same reason, the natural hybrid between this species and C. discolor, C. Koozu, is a near ghost on the islands today as well.

Calanthe Kozu
Calanthe Koozu is the natural hybrid of C. izu-insularis and C. discolor. This clone has the typical color pattern for the hybrid, but its flower is much larger than most than since it is an artificially bred triploid.

Calanthe Koozu, is obviously named after the island it was first found. C. discolor is a widespread and common species found throughout most of Japan, Korea and parts of China. The flower of C. Koozu generally has more rounded and wider flower parts than C. izu-insularis, and the sepal and petal color tends to be a more rich, pure purple shade. The lip as well tends to be broader, reminiscent of C. discolor. In many specimens the lip is white, but often has more yellow on its crest and sometimes purple as well. The spur tends to be shorter than in C. izu-insularis and often has a curve to it. Having said all that, variation in color and form can be quite different from plant to plant, possibly due to back crossing and also because of the variability of C. discolor. So, flowers can have thin or wide segments, bicolored flowers to pure white ones, or ones fully suffused with purple, and so on. The flower’s fragrance can be floral, or in some cases have a much more sweet component. It is a real mixed bag – peruse the photos to see this great variation.
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Cymbidium goeringii special forms: red, orange, and yellow flowers

In the wild Cymbidium goeringii is most commonly seen as a green flowered plant with a white lip. On rare occasions flowers with brownish-orange flushing in the sepals and petals, or dirty yellow color can be found. Only very rarely is a pure red, orange, or yellow flowered plant discovered. All of these special forms are coveted by shunran growers, and high quality flowering clones command equally high prices.

I first was introduced to these lovely plants at a Japanese orchid show soon after arriving in Kyushu nearly ten years ago. I was floored by the intense red forms in particular, but then I saw a lemon yellow one at a sales bench that was so pure I almost couldn’t believe my eyes. My eagerness to buy the plant was muted the minute I saw the price tag – 30,000 yen or about $300 US at the time.

Cymbidium goeringii Mebina
Cymbidium goeringii ‘Mebina’ – this particular clone is more orange than is normal for the type.

In the intervening years I have seen literally thousands of special forms of Cymbidium goeringii on display and for sale at both small and large orchid shows. One thing I’ve come to understand is that not all of them are lovely things, in fact only a very few select ones are truly beautiful. Having said that, when you see a good clone in full flower it takes your breath away. The following shunran are some of the more lovely red, orange, and yellow ones I’ve seen. The lips of all types are white, some pure white while others are marked with purple spots here and there.

Cymbidium goeringii Mebina
Cymbidium goeringii ‘Mebina’ – this plant has deep red flowers more typical of the form.

One of the better known red to deep orange forms is ‘Mebina’. The following photos show two different plants with different colors with the pure red form being more typical of this type, at least in ones I’ve seen. Another lovely red flower is ‘Benitemari’. Flowers with this rich a color are highly sought after and are very expensive. Perhaps a single lead division might run anywhere from $100-$300, or even more.

Cymbidium goeringii Benitemari
Another lovely red form, Cymbidium goeringii ‘Benitemari’

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