Wednesday, 26 October 2011

Creatures of the night

Top 13 weird and wonderful orchids

MOST orchids are a treat to behold. For Halloween, here are a few tricky characters you mightn’t want to encounter in a darkened greenhouse on Mischief Night.

Orchids come in many forms, some beautiful and some, well, not. For sheer reptile ugliness, the Bulbophyllum putidum orchid has to take first place for its resemblance to a frog, complete with damp fleshiness. Urg.

To ward off the beasties, a simple British orchid fits the bill.

The commonly sighted Early Purple Orchid might look fresh and sweet, but it holds a nasty secret. Its scent is positively offensive scent, likened to that of a tomcat. Crushing the leaves releases the smell of garlic. Good to know?

Orchids that attract flies for pollination can smell terrible. One of the whiffiest orchids on the planet must be the Bulbophyllum phalaenopsis, with its aroma of rotten meat. But for the ‘Eeuw’ factor, the Corallorhiza striata has to take the (mouldy) biscuit. These characters grow in the bottom of forests and use a type of fungus to feed off decaying leaf matter.

An article on spooky orchids would not be complete without reference to the Ghost Orchid (Dendrophylax lindenii), which, hopefully like phantoms, are rare. Their creepy long, white fingers are shaped differently from most flowers, but they are also endangered and are now protected under international law from modern day orchid thieves.

Another creature of the night is the alarmingly named Dracula orchid, with its puckered, goblin-like face and a creepy hinged lip. But that’s not all. The sneaky devils have learned to mimic the smell and appearance of certain mushrooms to lure fruit flies into pollinating them.

Or what about the medusa orchid? The Bulbophyllum medusae comes complete with scary straggly hair suggestive of the mythological namesake. There’s even a contender from the world of science fiction. Miltassia Dark Star 'Darth Vader' orchid has a deliciously evil presence when in bloom.

For the most monstrous orchid of all, check out the Grammatophyllium speciosum, the heaviest of orchids in the world, weighing up to 2,000kg and capable of producing a staggering 10,000 flowers. A native of Singapore, it’s commonly known as known as Tiger orchid because of the markings on the flowers. Sadly, this dramatic creature is rare if not already extinct in the wild in Singapore.

It might surprise some to know that not a single orchid is recorded as being poisonous, although a handful cause allergic skin reactions, such as Cypripedium reginae. In Hawaii orchid blooms are used as a garnish for food and drinks, so watch out.

In keeping with Halloween, how could one forget the plethora of spider orchids, some scarier than others. Endemic to Australia, New Zealand and New Caladonia, the underground tubers were used by the Australian aborigines for food.

Staying Down Under, there’s a contender for a creepy troglodyte award. The Rhizanthella gardneri spends its entire life underground. With no above-ground parts, it doesn’t photosynthesise, but is saprophytic, meaning it feeds off another plant, and it is pollinated by termites. It has a Gollum-like fleshy quality that is truly gross.

Thinking about Gollum, what about insectivorous or even carnivorous orchids? Some fanatics believe there is just one, growing in the Tepui formations in southwestern Venezuela. Called Aracamunia liesneri, and collected in 1987, it has one or two peculiar tongue-shaped, glandular structures protruding from the base of each leaf, suggesting it may be ‘compatible with flypaper insect traps’. Odd, though. I couldn’t find a single picture …

There is no absolutely black orchid, although quite a variety of close contenders, from the Phalaenopsis Ever Spring Prince ‘Black Bird’, to Paphiopedilum Astro Boy (Makuli x rothschildianum), a rare lady slipper orchid but it is not a black orchid. If you’re into the dark side of the orchid world, check out this list.

Finally, my personal Halloween favourite is a ‘glow-in-the-dark’ variant, a genetically modified bioluminescent orchid developed by Professor Chia Tet Fatt. The prof transformed tissues from a Dendrobium genus, using the firefly luciferase gene using particle bombardment. Thus, biologically active DNA from the firefly gene was delivered into orchid tissues. Transformed cells were identified by their bioluminescence trait and propagated to generate transgenic plants. These glowing orchids produce constant light, visible to the human eye, for up to five hours at a time. The greenish-white light is emitted from the whole orchid, including roots, stem, leaves and petals. The intensity of light produced varies across the different parts, ranging from 5,000 to 30,000 photons per second. All this according to a Missouri Orchid Society newsletter. Click here to see the orchid glow!

This is creepy. That’s 13. And I wasn’t even counting.


2. Early Purple Orchid, Orchis mascula in woods near Tillington, West Sussex, England, 2007, by Charles W Drake
3. Bulbophyllum phalaenopsis, trophy-winning plant at 2005 NY International Orchid Show, Elena Gaillard
4. Corallorhiza striata, also known as hooded coralroot. This specimen was found in the dense cover of the High Sierra forests, Alan Vernon
5. Dendrophylax Ghost Orchid (Dendrophylax lindenii) by Mick Fournier, Pompano Beach, Florida, 2007
6. Illustration of Dracula chimaera from Florence H. Woolward: The Genus Masdevallia,
1896, Schweizerische Orchideenstiftung am Herbarium Jany Renz,
7. Bulbophyllum medusae, Erik Hunt, 2006
8. Grammatophyllum speciosum, a hand-retouched chromolithograph by Louis-Aristide-Léon Constans (fl. 1830s-1860s), from the second volume of Paxton's Flower Garden (1851-1852) by John Lindley and Joseph Paxton, wikimedia
9. Cypripedium reginae, Edwards's Botanical Register, volume 20, plate 1666
10. Spider orchid (Caladenia integra) in Western Australia, 2006, A. Buschinger
11. Rhizanthella gardneri, from Gutenberg version of Emily Pelloe: ‘West Australian Orchids’, p66, 1930, wikimedia
13. Glow in the dark: this is just mock-up, but you get the idea.