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 The hills and mountains themselves remain mostly forested, but on average more than 50% of native forest has been replaced by either hinoki (Chamaecyparis obtusa) or sugi (Cryptomeria japonica) plantations – poor habitat for most orchid species.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.


A few minutes later she returned and said, “hey look at what I found. It is a fuuran, isn’t it?” I stared down at her open hand, cradling a little Neofinetia falcata in full bud. Incredulous, I asked where the heck she had found it and she pointed to a small stone wall along the river, “on top of that wall”. I bolted up. I knew darn well that orchids don’t just magically appear on stone walls, and began to canvas the large ginkgo tree above our heads. In less time than it takes to dip a biscotti into coffee I saw the first one around 10 meters up, growing on a nearly horizontal branch. Further up I saw more, and then more, and then flowering plants. My excitement began to mushroom.

WIld fuuran flowering clump
Another flowering clump of Neofinetia in the same tree. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve stood under this tree, usually in the fall to look its golden leaves, and never have I detected any orchids in it before. It boggles the mind how blind we can be sometimes.

I got the camera equipment back online and began looking for flowering plants to photograph. Unfortunately, my SLR has only a short telephoto lens and so I was forced to use the video camera’s 21x telephoto to get proper shots since the flowering plants were all quite high up. The quality of its jpegs are less than be desired, but I had to be content with them. Luckily, it takes very nice video regardless of the telephoto distance, so I captured some nice video clips.

Inspection of the tree yielded more and more plants, many of them flowering. I scoured the surrounding trees (various native hardwoods), but could not locate a single orchid on any of them though they were festooned with the epiphytic ferns Lepisorus thunbergii and Lemmaphyllum microphyllum – both epiphytic weeds of this region. Yumi and I then broke camp and headed across the river to an even larger ginkgo in the hopes of finding more N. falcata. We saw lots of the ferns, but not one more orchid.

Octopus Stinkhorn Mushroom
The octopus stinkhorn mushroom, Clathrus archeri, growing in the vicinity of the ginkgo tree full of Neofinetia. This weird mushroom is a native of Australia and Tasmania, but has become naturalized in Japan and many other places in the northern hemisphere. The fruiting body starts out looking like an odd cluster of eggs, only to crack open and let out an even stranger “red octopus” that smells like rotten meat!

It appears that the tree in question, a female specimen of Ginkgo biloba, is the only host to these orchids at this location. This tree is in the vicinity of a famous shrine and an entire valley full of old growth forest. It seems logical that this forest is the origin of this colony, providing the seed necessary to colonize this non-native tree species. An alternative possibility is that fuuran were grown at the shrine years ago, and that is how the plants became naturalized. The tree is far too tall to have had human hands put the plants so high up – literally a crane would have been needed. In all, I’d guess the population in this tree is at least a hundred separate plants, of all ages and sizes.

What is even more funny to me is that my wife, who despite enjoying trips to the outdoors, spends a mere fraction of the time I do outside, and yet she found all the interesting things at this place – both the orchid and the fungus! Ah well, it just goes to show, you can’t know or see everything, not even if it is under your nose.

It is comforting to know that this colony exists and rouses my interest in searching for more colonies up the valley. It also makes me wonder if I should bring my wife to other potential orchid habitats for another pair of eyes to see with.


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

    1. Hey Craig! How’s it going man? In the UK yet?

      Yes, I was very happy to see these plants growing “semi-wild”. There’s no doubt they are self-established, but not exactly “wild” either. I’m sure tons of stuff is growing overhead that I’ve failed to notice – no matter how much I try!


  1. Thanks for the post, Tom! First time seeing plants in the wild is a thrill best appreciated by botany nuts like us. My first wild southern magnolia was just as fun as the first wild Venus flytrap. I took my family to Aomori for three years as an Air Force physical therapist, how I loved and long to return to Japan. Have you seen the 1000 year old ginkgo at Kamakura? Maybe someday I’ll get to see the semi-wild Neofinetias you saw.


    1. Hey Charlie. I have lived in Japan long enough where I take it for granted sometimes, forgetting momentarily my unique situation. Finding the Neo colony was a pleasant shock since I new that area well and had not detected them for years. It just goes to show that you can always find something new, even under your own nose sometimes! I’ve not seen that old ginkgo, but there are some pretty old ones around here too, far beyond anything in the states. Lots of other old trees, especially camphors and Japanese cedars. Thanks for the kind comments. Tom

  2. Hi, hello,

    i was doing some digging about Neofinetia falcata (and Dendrobium moniliforme), mainly to see how feasible it would be to grow it outside on a tree where I live, year round. I am from south-central Europe – still as far north as Hokkaido though, but gulf stream keeps us warmer, and there are a number of subtropical plants able to grow here in culture, although the climate here is a mixture between warm temperate continental, montane and oceanic.
    Could you please tell me how far north do they go in Japan, i can’t seem to find any information on that – that would help in determining how bad of an idea it is to grow them outside and to prepare them in case I decide to try it.

    This is a really cool blog too, I really like seeing pictures of orchids in the wild.

    Thank you very much

    1. Hi Jakob. Of the two, Neofinetia (now Vanda) falcata is less cold hardy. It can be found as far north as Ibaraki Prefecture on the Pacific coast, and Fukui Prefecture on the Sea of Japan side. Dendrobium moniliforme goes all the way up to Iwate Prefecture on the Pacific side, and Niigata Prefecture on the Sea of Japan side. Realize they both require warm, and even hot, summers with lots of rain and high humidity at all times. Winter temperatures can go down to freezing, and even a bit lower, but the average daily temperature should not be less than 5 Celsius or so. Personally, I think any temperature below -5 C is a bad idea for either, especially if repeated or the plants are exposed. Of the three types of climates you mention, the oceanic type would suit them best. I’d try a few common types out in various positions in the garden and see how they do before getting rarer/more expensive kinds. Thanks for the kind compliment on the blog. Please do visit my Youtube channel as well. Tom

  3. It’s very amusing and exciting! But isn’t it illegal to take fuuran as an endangered species from its natural habitat?

    1. Interesting question. Not likely. The plant would have died on the ground if I left it there regardless. BTW, I have hundreds of these at my house, so I don’t need more. The plant in question was placed into “the wild” on a nearby mountain. Hopefully it is still there. BTW, I have watched many dozens of orchids “disappear” from the mountains around my house over the years – all obviously collected. Species like N. falcata, Dendrobium moniliforme, Ponerorchis graminifolia, most of the Calanthe species/natural hybrids, and all of the Cypripediums of Japan have been ruthlessly collected over the past 50 years. That is why most of these are threatened, endangered or extinct in much of Japan.

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