Botanic Notables: Night Blooming Orchid

Botanic Notables: Night Blooming Orchid

December 2, 2011
Photo by: André Schuiteman (right); Jaap Vermuelan (left)

Orchids are known for their curious behaviors and adaptations and with more than 25,000 species, the Orchidacae family exhibits a dizzying range of colors, shapes, and life cycles. Their enigmatic blossoms often seem to be synced with an inscrutable clock; some flower for months, while others open for only a few hours. Recently, a new species with an unusual blooming time was discovered: the Bulbophyllum nocturnum, the only known night-blooming orchid.

The nocturnal orchid was discovered buy Dutch orchid specialist Ed de Vogel on a field collecting trip on the volcanic island of New Britain, near Papua New Guinea. When the specimen was brought to the Netherlands and cultivated, de Vogel and his colleagues were frustrated. They had identified the plant as a member of the Epicrianthes section of orchids—a group that contains many rare and bizarre species—and they were very curious to see the flower of this new species. Yet it appeared not to bloom—instead, healthy buds seemed to immediately wither away, entirely skipping the flowering stage.

The orchid appeared not to bloom and healthy buds seemed to immediately wither away, entirely skipping the flowering stage.

It wasn't until De Vogel brought a specimen home that he realized what was happening: at 10pm, the bud opened, and the rare, nocturnal flower bloomed. By morning, it was dead. Night-blooming is exhibited by a handful of other plant species, but the Bulbophyllum nocturnum is the only known orchid to do so. It's possible that the species is pollinated by night-foraging midges, a hypothesis that would explain its flowering clock, and the long appendages that appear to mimic fruiting fungus (thereby attracting the midges).

Explanations remain speculative—botanists aren't sure why the orchid has evolved to have its night-blooming behavior, though they are confident that a nocturnal pollinator has something to do with it. Accordingly, the co-authors published their discovery in the Botanical Journal of the Linnean Society, with the title "Nocturne for an Unknown Pollinator."

Anna Laurent is a writer and producer of educational botanical media. Photographs from her forthcoming field guide to Los Angeles are available for exhibition and purchase at her website.