Neofinetia falcata, the wind orchid, in the “wilds” of Japan

Neofinetia falcata (now considered by most authorities to fall under the genus Vanda), is a small epiphytic orchid hailing from southeastern China, South Korea, and Japan. Throughout its range in Japan it is now considered either critically endangered, endangered, or vulnerable by Japan’s Ministry of the Environment. That includes the area I live, Fukuoka Prefecture, on Kyushu’s northwest coast. What follows is an account of my wife, Yumi, discovering a semi-wild population on the very eves of the largest city in southern Japan, Fukuoka.

A little background information first. I have hunted the woods around Fukuoka City for over 10 years now and have found out first-hand just how rare most orchid species have become over the centuries. For perspective, realize that Fukuoka itself has a population of nearly 1.5 million people, and the greater metropolitan area has many more – about 5.6 million. It ranks as Japan’s 6th largest city. Impressive.

Wild Neofinetia falcata
Here is the small budded plant of Neofinetia falcata my wife found under a large ginkgo tree.

Such large human populations have a huge impact on the environment. Virtually no lowland native plant communities yet survive, except as remnants on hills scattered here and there in and around urbanized areas and on sea islands that dot the coastline. Virtually all of these are biologically impoverished from centuries of human impact. The remaining land has been in agricultural use for centuries, and the rivers all contained within massive earthen dikes. Urban rivers and smaller streams are as a rule bound by concrete walls. The hills and mountains themselves remain mostly forested, but on average more than 50% of native forest has been replaced by either hinoki (Chamaecyparis obtusa) or sugi (Cryptomeria japonica) plantations – poor habitat for most orchid species. Remnant old growth forest can be found here and there, usually in the immediate vicinity of temples or shrines, occasionally along river courses or streams, and on the very topmost parts of mountain ridges. It is here that one finds Kyushu’s remaining populations of unusual plants.

Japan is famous for its “happy Monday” holidays and one falls right around my birthday every July, umi-no-hi (directly translating as “sea day” or “marine day”), a tribute to Japan’s rich seas. My wife got the idea to get up early and go to a small river in a little valley just north of the city. She had gone there the previous week on a class trip with her children (she’s a preschool teacher) and had found a really odd looking fungus that I’d not seen before. Based on her description and memory, I figured it to be some kind of stinkhorn mushroom. A quick search on the web and I found the likely candidate, Clathrus archeri, the octopus stinkhorn. I’d seen stinkhorns before, but nothing like this one. So we packed up the car with camp chairs, photo equipment, and fresh coffee and biscotti for a morning picnic.

Wild fuuran
This lovely clump of Neofinetia falcata is growing about 10 meters above a small river in a large ginkgo tree, Hisayama Town, Fukuoka Prefecture, Kyushu, Japan.

We quickly found a nice spot in the shade along a curve of the river. Toes in the cool water, sitting comfortably in our chairs, sipping coffee and gnashing on biscotti… can life get much better? After a while I got the cameras ready to get photos and video of the fungus. I found them quickly and realized they were indeed C. archeri, a stinkhorn native to Australia and Tasmania that has now naturalized over much of the northern hemisphere. After some intense photography I returned to the river. Yumi was sitting and enjoying the river, watching an older gentleman play with his dog in the rapids. Then she went for a stroll of her own.
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Neofinetia falcata in my Japanese garden, July 2015

The end of the rainy season here in Kyushu, Japan usually falls on the first or second week of July, and also marks the peak flower season for one of Japan’s most celebrated orchids, Neofinetia falcata. I grow both wild forms, known as fuuran (often misrepresented as furan) and the selected varieties called fuukiran (again, usually called fukiran). Luckily, they require little assistance from me since I don’t repot as much as I should, letting nature do most of the work. Still, each year they grace my garden with lovely flowers.

Here is a sample from this year.

Neofinetia 'Benisuzume'
‘Benisuzume’ – the cute little pink flowered form. I’ve been growing this plant for 10 years now. Flower count is just so-so, but still a nice display.
Neofinetia 'Tamakongou'
‘Tamakongou’ – this little guy was planted on a tree fern “swing” a few years back. It is doing fairly well and with time it should get pretty huge. Nice flowering this year despite any significant care on my part.

Neofinetia 'Seikai'
‘Seikai’ – I’ve grown this clump for around 8 years now – slow growing variety, but then again most Neos aren’t what you’d call “fast”. Two flower stalks this year made it to flowering. A must have for the Neo collector.

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Neofinetia orchid show, fuukiran-ten, part two

Here are some more pictures of fuukiran at shows I’ve been to in the past couple years.  All of these plants are valuable either due to their size (and therefore, age) and/or rarity.  Fuukiran shows are a joy to experience in person.  I hope these pictures give you an idea.

First up is a large Tamakongou, the most well known of the “bean leaf” varieties of fuukiran.  This plant is not only large, but has many flowers, something I find a bit difficult to do with this form.  My plants grow into clumps fairly quickly, but are a bit shy about flowering as well as this specimen.

Probably the best known of the bean leaf varieties of fuukiran is Tamakongou.

Kinginrasha is one of the more interesting fuukiran.  The plant is relatively small, but is generous with its blooms.  This specimen is showing off very nicely both white and golden flowers at once, hence in its name kin = silver and gin = golden.  Not rare, but a plant this size carries great value.

One of my favorite fuukiran is Kinginrasha.

Shikoku Akabana (akabana meaning “red flowered”) is another purple flowered variety, but is not an accepted fuukiran.  It is however a lovely form that is generous about flowering, but clumps slowly.  This specimen is a large one and therefore valuable.

Shikoku Akabana
Shikoku Akabana is a red flowering wild form from the island of Shikoku. Though well known it is not a registered fuukiran.

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Neofinetia orchid show, fuukiran-ten, part one

July is flowering season for the select clones of Neofinetia falcata, known as fuukiran in Japanese.  This is always a pleasant time of year with its lazy hot days and orchid shows, or ran-ten.  I’ve managed over the years to take pictures of some pretty spectacular plants, both in terms of rarity and size.  What follows is a sampling.  So, I’ll let the pictures mostly speak for themselves.

Here is a typical scene at a fuukiran show in Japan.  In a show plants must be put into special glazed pots, some of which are elegantly hand painted.  They must be planted the traditional method – in a mound of long fibered sphagnum moss.

Fuukiran show
Fuukiran show, or ran ten.

The highest ranked fuukiran is Fukiden.  While it remains the top ranked form, it is not the most sought after these days.  In recent years the value of this plant has dropped 50%, but the cost of a single fan remains high – around $500 US.  A plant this size commands a wallet breaking price.

Fukiden, the top ranked fuukiran.

A lovely easy to grow and fairly cheap form is Tenkeifukurin.  The variegation of this form is very stable and it clumps well.  This is a wonderful specimen that represents 20 or more years of growth.

Tenkeifukurin, an easy to grow fuukiran.

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Fuukiran – odd flower forms

Most Neofinetia have a very standard shape and color, but there exist some flower forms that are so outrageous it is hard to believe they are actually the pure species.  I remember vividly seeing Seikai for the first time years ago and thinking, “I wonder what that is crossed with?”  A few couple later I was find out that this form was indeed a pure Neofinetia, not a hybrid at all.  While the debate about the purity of some forms rages on, the natural variability this species exhibits  remains remarkable.  Perhaps no other group of fuukiran exemplifies this variety, both in breadth and form, than the odd shaped flower types.

Odd flower forms can range in size as well with plants like Seikai, Unkai, and Shunkyuuden sporting abnormally large flowers while others are diminutive such as Kisshukouryuu.  Still others have extra spurs, no spurs, flowers that don’t fully open, flowers that face directly upward, and so on.  Some even are highly colored such as the prized Benikanzashi.  Many are rare and therefore valuable.  Here’s a taste.

Perhaps the most unique of all – Seikai.

One of the most choice fuukiran is Seikai since it is so different from most that at first glance it is hard to believe it is a pure Neofinetia falcata at all.  It is a “bean-leaf” type, but the leaves have a lovely arch to them, hence its  name which means “ocean wave”.  Like other bean leaf forms they are very succulent.  The flowers too are just amazing, much larger than an average flower, pink, with upturned flower parts and a straight spur pointing in a downward direction.  It remains fairly expensive since it cannot be reproduced through mericlones or seed, but only by division.  Slow growing, but not difficult, this one belongs in every serious fuukiran collection.

While the flowers of Unkai look much like its relative Seikai, the plant’s leaves are more normal looking.

A close cousin to Seikai is Unkai , but honestly it cannot hold a candle to its fairer friend.  The flowers have a very similar shape as well, but tend to be paler.  It too is a “bean-leaf” type, however the leaves are much less curved.  It is a faster grower than Seikai, forming very nice clumps quickly and when in flower it really is a great looking plant.  Care needs to be taken when watering both of these since direct watering can make the buds blast.

Shunkyuuden is one of the oddest looking forms of all.

A really bizarre flower is Shunkyuden.  It has many more flower parts than is normal and they grow in all manner of directions – they are difficult to explain, so I’ll let the photo speak for itself.  Variability of their form is high, with no two looking quite alike, even year to year.  It tends to be late flowering, often into late July.  A bit slow to form clumps, but not difficult, and also quite expensive.  Unfortunately, the flowers are completely sterile.
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Fuukiran – colored flower forms

In nature Neofinetia falcata occurs mostly as white flowered plants, but some individuals can have purple flushing, sometimes just on the flower’s spur (the downward extended and curved part that contains the nectar) and occasionally this color can extend to most of the flower, in particular the sepals and petals.  Other forms can be found with green flowers, again, mostly in the sepals, petals, and spurs.  No confirmed yellow flowers have been found yet, although many dealers claim to have true wild collected yellow flowered plants.  I’ll speak more about that later.  The discussion here is about some of the more common colored flowered fuukiran.

The first group are the purple flowered forms.  All of these are claimed to be at one time wild collected and nowadays are propagated though division and also from seeds.  One of the most common and easy to flower is Benisuzume. This one clumps very quickly and it is always generous about flowering too.  Its flowers are on the small side and usually are just a pastel pinkish purple.  The lip is totally white.

Benisuzume – a generous flowering form.

Shutennou is one of the most famous of the purple flowered forms. It originally was from Shikoku and wild collected plants were slow to grow from division. Plants propagated from seed today are fast growers and clump well. I’ve found it easy to flower, but I don’t get as many spikes as on Benisuzume. An interesting plant from the island of Shikoku is Shikoku Akabana. The only negative thing I can say about this one is that it is slow to clump. Tougen is an older form with lovely curving purple spurs. It seems easy to grow and flower, yet remarkably not well known or grown given its charms.

Shutennou – a fast clumping and vigorous purple flowered form.
Tougen - an older form with lovely curved purple spurs.
Tougen – an older form with lovely curved purple spurs.

Shikoku Akabana
Shikoku Akabana – a wild form from Shikoku Island

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How to grow fuukiran, the basics

Neofinetia falcata is an easily grown orchid.  In nature it grows on trees or sometimes rocks, and is termed epiphytic in habit (literally meaning “a plant growing on the outside of something”).  Therefore, they cannot tolerate being planted in soil, but instead require other composts that remain airy and do not break down quickly.  They also are very resistant to cold in winter compared to most other epiphytic orchids.  They do need a true cool winter rest to flower and grow correctly, but just as important is a long, warm, and moist summer season. Fuukiran, being special forms of N. falcata, respond to the same basic conditions as the typical wild form of the species.

Let’s start with proper planting. The wild forms of Neofinetia falcata, known as fuuran in Japanese, can be grown like they are in nature, that is, mounted to outside trees in appropriate climates or onto tree fern plaques, any nontoxic wood, or for that matter onto rough stone such a pumice.  I grow large ones on inverted clay flower pots very successfully. They can also be grown like their tropical relatives such as Vanda and Ascocentrum, in clay pots or baskets with little compost.  Some people grow them in a typical orchid bark and perlite mix with reasonable success.  As long as the growing medium isn’t allowed to break down too much or stay continually wet, thus insuring healthy roots, they will grow fine using any of these methods.

Naturalized Neofinetia
These wild forms of N. falcata are naturalized on a plum tree in the author's garden in Fukuoka, Japan.

Fuukiran, being of such high value, are usually handled with more care, especially in Japan, but also by growers worldwide who have learned traditional growing techniques perfected over the centuries.   In short, plants are grown on top of a mound of high quality, long fibered sphagnum moss that is ball shaped and hollow at its core.  This ball of moss sits in a pot that allows for maximum air movement around the roots.  That, I’m afraid is a really tough thing to imagine if you’ve never seen it, so I’ll have to go into detail  about how this ball is made and how to incorporate the plant into it.  Repotting them in this manner should be done in late winter, just before they commence their growth cycle.  If you repot them at other times you can damage growing root tips and delay proper growth during their growing season.  Check out this video to see how to pot them the traditional way:

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