Botanic Notables: The Smallest Orchid

Botanic Notables: The Smallest Orchid

May 20, 2011
Photo by: Lou Jost

The discovery of the world's smallest orchid is, fittingly, the story of an intrepid explorer, an enigmatic flower, and the curious luck that brought them together. Joining other small orchids in the Platystele genus, a blossom from this superlatively small species is just 2.1 mm wide from tip to tip, and its petals are one-cell thick—all but transparent. For years, the tiny flower eluded even the world's leading orchid hunter. Until he unwittingly swept it up while collecting another orchid specimen in a nature reserve in Ecuador's eastern Andes region. 

Orchids are an exotic darling of botanic enthusiasts: one of the most diverse of the flowering plant families, their complex evolution was studied by Charles Darwin, and their unique blossoms are coveted by collectors. The smallest of them all was discovered in 2009 by American botanist Lou Jost, a former physicist who is now a conservation biologist and taxonomist specializing in orchids. "I found it among the roots of another plant that I had collected, another small orchid which I took back to grow in my greenhouse to get it to flower," he said of the superlative flower. "A few months later I saw that down among the roots was a tiny little plant that I realized was more interesting than [the other]." The smallest orchid has been placed in the Teagueia genus, alongside other very small orchids. 

In the last decade, Jost has discovered about 70 species of orchids, many in Ecuador. This remote and undisturbed forest habitat has yielded more than 1,000 orchid discoveries in the past century. It's familiar territory for Jost; on his site, he recounts many of his Ecuadorian discoveries in lovely detail. The log reads like a travelogue and a orchid-hunting manual—encouraging, perhaps, for those considering a second career in botanic exploration. Says Jost of the mysterious world of unidentified plants: "People think everything has been discovered but there's much more... These forests are just filled with new things."

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 the author's shop.