Friday, February 25, 2011

Vanilla claviculata, an orchid species endemic to the Greater Antilles

Only a single flower is open at a time
The lip is waxy and heavily hairy and sculpted
Side view of the flower, note the dense undergrowth where this plant grows
A weak inflorescence in the middle of a landslide area where the substrate is bare rock

Flower buds in various stages of develpment

A  seed pod which is known in horticulture as a bean

Vanilla claviculata is found naturally in the wild only in the Greater Antilles.  In Puerto Rico I have unequivocally identified it only in Maricao.  Unfortunately I can’t say where I have seen this plant aside from the spot where I found the plant with flowers because I am not familiar with the characteristics that distinguish one species of leafless Vanilla from another.   To makes things worse this species occurs simpatrically with another species of leafless Vanilla, and they sometimes hybridize giving rise to plants with flowers with intermediate characteristics.
The plants I found in flower were blooming in the summer.  For me one of the most vexing things about local Vanilla orchids is the difficulty of finding plants with flowers.  I have walked many hours through forests in Aguadilla, Guajataca, Maricao, Rio Abajo and Susua where Vanilla grow wild and seen areas literally carpeted with Vanilla vines which also draped trees nearby tree and any supporting object, but there wasn’t even a single flower in evidence anywhere.  From time to time I would find the odd spent inflorescence and in even fewer occasions the bean, but finding plants in bloom has been a thing that has mostly eluded me.  I have on occasion seen plants high up in the canopy that might have flowers but the height of the trees precluded any access to the flowers if they were present.
In local forests it can difficult to predict where Vanilla can be found.  I have seen them growing with the same gusto in intact primeval forest and in landslides where the forest was ripped down to the bedrock.  However those species with leaves seem to be confined to relatively intact primeval or secondary forest while those without leaves seem to be much less fastidious on where they grow.
In Maricao I have seen the leafless type grow from the edge of the forest into landslide areas that consists of little more than exposed rock.  As a result you can see vines that extends for dozens of feet into a bare area.  In spite their poor appearance they seem to be surviving quite well in this very sunny environment.  One good place to see this is the road that crosses the Maricao forest.  But don’t expect to see flowers.
The flowers are light green with a massive lip and measure between one and half and two inches.  The lip is waxy, hard and brittle, considering the texture of the lip you would have expected this flower to be longer lasting.  But as other Vanilla these flowers only last one or two days days in good condition.  In the place where I found the flowers there were many inflorescences a reversal of the usual situation.  But most of the inflorescences were confined to an area where the floor of the forest was carpeted with water holding bromeliads.  I don’t know if the presence of the bromeliads is significant or just a coincidence but there may be a clue there that might help with blooming this species.  The patch were the flowers were found had another interesting characteristic, it was chock full of other orchid genera, growing cheek by jowl in this small area.  There are in the area plants of Eltroplectis, Epidendrum, Pleurothallis, Polystachia, Prosthechea, Oncidium and Vanilla.
This plant produces seed pods that can be used to produce vanilla.  However the vanilla from this species is considered of inferior quality to that produced by pompona.  Seedpods in this species are produced rarely but they are way easier to find than flowers and you can occasionally spy them in one or twos hanging from the spent inflorescences.

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