Monday, January 3, 2011

Cochleanthes flabelliformis the Puerto Rican orchid with the largest flowers

Cochleantes flabelliformis, note that the lip has some damage, probably caused by animals or insects.

A newly open flower, of a plant in situ

Aside view of the flower

A mature flower, in a plant in situ

A developing seed pod

The seed pod has been raised using a dry twing to allow for a better  photograph.  Notice the Caracolus caracolla snails under the plant.

There are three flowers that I regard as the Holy Grail of wild orchid photographers in Puerto Rico.  One is Lepanthes eltoroensis, of which I know of a single photo taken in the wild.  Another is Sudamerlycaste barrintoniae of which I know of only one poor photo from the pre-digital times.  The last is Cochleanthes flabelliformis of which I had never seen a photo of a plant from Puerto Rico growing in the wild.  All these orchids are considered quite rate and the location of known populations (for obvious reasons) are well kept secrets.  So you can imagine my excitement when a botanist friend that knows my interest in photographing this orchid informed that he had located a plant.
Although a plant was accessible for photographing, as is the often the case with orchids, it was not blooming so I had to patiently wait for the blooming season to arrive, I checked the plant from time to time until in August 2008 when I was overjoyed to discover that it started showing signs that it was going to bloom .  The plant, a relatively weak specimen growing in deep shade, eventually produced a single flower.   The flower was somewhat different from what I have seen in pictures and drawings of this species, as you can see in the photo.
The flower produced a seed pod which I was able to photograph before it opened sometime after December.  The plant bloomed again in 2009 and produced a larger flower which I attribute to it getting more light courtesy of some help from a passing orchidist.  This flower didn’t produce a seed pod.  In 2010 the plant seemed to die, only a stump and some dead looking roots remained as evidence of its existence.  But in November of 2010 a tiny side shoot appeared on the side of the dead root mass so this plant may yet bloom again.  If it ever does so I will be ready to get more photos.
This plant is a mystery to me in the sense that even though it is horticultural desirable, being the largest flowered orchid native of Puerto Rico, I have not seen it anywhere in cultivation in Puerto Rico either in local orchid collections or in orchid shows.  Since over collection from the wild has been given as a reason for this plant rarity I would have expected to see it at shows and at local collections.   But this is not the case, in fact the only time I have seen a exhibit that purported to show a specimen of this orchid the plant was actually Cochleantes discolor.
My suspicion is that this orchid does not survive in cultivation in local collections.  I know there are local orchid growers of unsurpassed skill which can maintain rare and difficult to grow orchids alive and thriving for years and years, but those are a small minority.  The majority of local orchid growers are totally unfamiliar with the environmental needs of orchids native to the forests of the mountainous interior of the island.  This means that almost all of the orchids collected from the central highlands usually die slow lingering deaths at the hands of hobbists whose enthusiasm surpasses their knowledge.
Although this plant is rare and local in the wild I don’t think it is in danger of extinction.  The remaining populations are in pretty rugged terrain which is extremely unlikely to be haunted by orchid growers.   Perhaps someone could gather a seed pod and make it available to the orchid community so that nobody had the need or the interest to get plants from the wild?  I will keep this thought in mind.
A curious thing that mystified me was that I found two large Caracolus caracolla snails resting in the leaf litter just under the leaves of this orchid.  These snails are voracious eaters of tender orchid leaves and stems.  Why they ignored the comparatively thin leaves of this orchid instead of devouring them completely is a small mystery.

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