Monday, February 7, 2011

Myrmecophyla (Schomburkgkia) grandiflora, an ant orchid from Central America

Head on view of a flower

The top view shows the ruffles of the flower segments
The flowers partly close at night

Note that the inflorescence has sustained some damage from insects feeding just under the scar of the first flower.  You can also see the sequential mode of flower production

A flower over a slab of limestone to show the color of the flower under sunlight
Myrmecophyla grandiflora, has a geographical distribution that ranges from Mexico to Colombia.  It inhabits dry areas where it grows both on trees and on rock.  The pseudobulbs of this species are hollow and it is said that in the wild there are always ant colonies inhabiting them.  It is reported that the pseudobulbs of this plant can reach up to 18 inches long and have two to five short coriaceous leaves on top.
A few years ago I was given a rootless three pseudobulb division.  I planted it in a custom made basket with no media (I was afraid that the plant would be attacked by an insidious disease but more on this below).  I tied the plant to the basket and watered and fertilized it like I do the Cattleya in my collection.  In due time the plant produced a new growth, after that it engaged in the copious production of roots, it repeats this cycle every year one or two times.  The plant did well in the basket but in due time it became clear that it would never reach its full potential with no media from which to draw moisture and fertilizer.  I then added some large, hard chucks of bark to its media, which the plant eventually enveloped with its roots.  However since it had started as a completely rootless division it took several years to achieve enough strength and size to bloom.
My plant produces two growths a year and sometimes tries to bloom from both of them.  Unfortunately the inflorescences of this orchid seem to be attractive in the extreme for some gnawing insects and I have lost a few to them.  Now I routinely give a slight dusting to my plant with some insecticidal dust to prevent any such critter from destroying them.  Given that these plants are hung on the shade house from wires about four feet long and the inflorescences are sometimes four feet long, the critters that eat them seem to be so highly motivated as to travel all this distance to munch on the tender inflorescence tip.  But use any insecticide with extreme care, and follow all instructions to the letter.  I, in particular have to be very careful as my shadehouse if full of fish tanks that could become contaminated with insecticide which would kill my beloved fish.
The flowers open widely in the morning but become floppy during the hottest hours of the day.  I am not sure if this happens everywhere but it is what happens in my garden.  The same thing is done by the flowers of Myrmecophila humboldtii in my garden.  The inflorescence keeps elongating and producing flowers for a few weeks.
I have found this plant to be generally problem free and a vigorous grower that can grow into a hernia inducing specimen plant.  The very long inflorescences can be an annoyance, as the flowers can end up so high up that you practically have to put the plant on the ground to enjoy them.  This plant responds well to constant watering and weekly fertilizer during its growing phase.  My plant produces very closely spaced pseudobulbs which mean I have to watch carefully when the new growth is forming so that it won’t get trapped in the media or the wire of the basket.
My plant is not growing in full sun, I have it under shade cloth, but one that allows a high percentage of the sunshine to pass through.  The sun in my location can be quite harsh on orchids, especially during the dry season, so I almost always give my plants some sort of protection from the sun during the hours surrounding noon and early afternoon.  Other Myrmecophyla that I have grown in full sun during the whole day have responded by becoming stunted.
This orchid seems indifferent to the local level of humidity although during the height of the dry season the pseudobulbs can become furrowed from water loss.  It gets watered once every week year round, along with whatever it gets from local rainfall.
I have always admired this plant but for many years I was hesitant to include it in my collection.  The reason was that I found that in my garden lurked a specially evil and insidious disease to which these plants were particularly vulnerable.  What makes this disease (I am not sure if it’s a fungi or a bacteria) exceedingly vile is that it won’t kill the whole plant, only the buds capable of new growth and a tiny area around them.  As a result of this damage the plant won’t grow or flower, but since everything else is ok, it still looks like it is in great shape.  I discovered this disease when my plants of Myrmecophila exaltata and a plant of Myrmecophila humboldtii would not grow or bloom for several years in a row.  I think I have found the way to stop or limit the damage this disease can inflict on my Myrmecophila.  I observed that all the plants that got this disease were planted in fairly water retentive media that was in contact with the stems on which the pseudobulbs sit.  By planting my orchids in fairly chunky media and keeping the base of the pseudobulbs a fraction of an inch over the media the disease seems to have been controlled.  So far tibicinis has not been molested by this dreadful disease.
Of all the Myrmecophyla orchids formerly known as Schomburgkia this is probably the one that is under the wider cultivation.   There is hardly any serious local orchid grower that doesn’t have at least one plant of this species.  There are also a number of hybrids of various sizes and colors that occasionally make their appearance at orchid shows but they don’t enjoy a fraction of the popularity of the Myrmecophila parent.  I have seen plants of this species of all sizes in the collections of various orchidists which makes me think that there is some variation on the plants available locally.  But all the flowers I have been able to examine were pretty similar regardless of the size of the plant that produced them.
In conclusion,if its minimum requirements of temperature and watering are met, this plant can survive almost every vicissitude that ordinarily sends other orchids to that great pot in the sky.   I have seen them growing equally vigorously in the hands of skilled growers as well as those of rank amateurs.
If you have any question just leave it in the comment section under the article.

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