Monday, December 27, 2010

Erythrodes hirtella, a Puerto Rican terrestrial orchid that is inconspicuous to a fault

Erythrodes hirtella, inflorescence

Plant body, note the shiny leaves with characteristic venation

Another view of the inflorescence

The orchid Erythrodes hirtella is one of those orchids that is so small, so unorchid-like and so inconspicuous that you could live for years next to a population of these plants and never realize that there were orchids nearby.   This happened to me with this species.  In fact I am sure I would have never noticed it if it had not forced itself on my attention.  Living in the middle of a forest, where it can rain every day for months on end, means that if you have any kind of plant in a pot you have to wage a constant war against invading ferns, melastomaceae, figs and all kind of invasive weeds that feel that the delicate, pampered and well fed denizen of the pot can be displaced by a more aggressive grower.  So I have to constantly weed the pots of face the loss of my plants.  One day meanwhile engaged in the unending weeding I was struck by the peculiar pattern of veining in the leaves of a small weed that had grown in the pot of one of my lilies.  The veining pattern, typically monocotyledonean was suspiciously orchid like.  I decided to spare the intruder and to keep it under observation.  Although initially excited by the mysterious intruder, a search of the literature quickly made clear that the orchid would probably belong to a species that produced small unshowy flowers.
When the plant did bloom the flowers were, as predicted small and unremarkable.  However the blooming did afford me the opportunity to document this species for my photo collection of Puerto Rican orchids.  Once I had become familiar with this plant I spotted others growing in the forest floor in scattered locations near my home.  This species is not in cultivation except perhaps accidentally.  It is the living embodiment of the old dictum “an orchid only of interest to botanists”.  I observed the plant for some time after it bloomed and set seed.  After the seed was dispersed the plant started to deteriorate and it died almost completely.  Some tiny pieces of stem remained alive and started to grow back, but by then my interest in this species had run its course.  The small stem pieces were relocated into a suitable habitat into the forest to live or die in their own terms as nature goes through its yearly cycle.

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