Reader discovers world’s first night-blooming orchid (and other cool species)

December 6, 2011 • 7:38 am

Reader André Schuiteman, who works at the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, is part of a team that has discovered and described the world’s first night-blooming orchid.  The species, Bulbophyllum nocturnum from New Guinea, is described (along with other species) in a new paper in The Botanical Journal of the Linnean Society (reference below). André wrote me:

I think the plants I study (mainly orchids from Southeast Asia) qualify for coolness, and I’m also a faithful, no, make that loyal, reader of your pseudoblog. Recently, I was involved in the description of the first night-flowering orchid known to science, which has generated quite a bit of publicity in recent days.

Please google ‘Bulbophyllum nocturnum‘ in case you missed it, or check out one of these links (here and here).

Now orchids are known that flower over long periods, including during the night.  The famous Angraecum sesquipedale of Madagascar, also known as “Darwin’s orchid,” is pollinated at night by a moth. Readers may know the story of this species: it has an extraordinarily long nectar spur—27-43 cm (10.6-17 inches). Allow me a brief digression to describe it.

The spur contains nectar at the bottom, which attracts pollinators. But to pollinate the orchid, those pollinators must have a tongue long enough to extend the whole length of the spur, allowing the orchid’s pollen sacs (pollinia) to touch the pollinator’s head or body and be detached from the flower.  Early biologists theorized that the complexity of this orchid required a divine creator (an early instance of ID!), but Darwin theorized in his orchid book that the long nectar spurs suggested an unknown pollinator with a long tongue.  Here’s the flower:

Photo courtesy Hawaiian Tropical Botanical Garden

And indeed, a pollinator, the moth Xanthopan morgani, was discovered in 1903. As Wikipedia notes: “The moth approaches the flower to ascertain by scent whether or not it is the correct orchid species. Then the moth backs up over a foot and unrolls its proboscis, then flies forward, inserting it into the orchid’s spur.”

The flower’s strong scent is produced only at night, and that is when the flower is pollinated.  But the flowers last several days, blooming during the day as well. Here’s the moth, with that long proboscis unrolled:

The new orchid described by Schuiteman et al., however, blooms only at night, at least as judged from its behavior in the Leiden University greenhouses, where the flowers open at about 10 p.m. but wither and die by 10 the next morning (no blooming has been observed in the wild).  Here’s the new night-bloomer:

Bulbophyllum nocturnum Credit Andre Schuiteman

Note the long appendages that dangle from the flower and move freely even in the slightest breeze; here’s a closeup:

Bulbophyllum nocturnum detail Credit Andre Schuiteman

Schuiteman et al. don’t know what these structures are for, but raise the intriguing possibility that they mimic the fruiting bodies of slime molds.  The dangly bits of B. nocturnum, for example, look like the fruiting bodies of Stemonitis pallida:

Stemonitis pallida

It’s possible, though of course highly speculative, that these appendages attract flies that feed on slime mold fruiting bodies (there are old reports that the flowers of related species have a fungus-like smell), and deceive the flies into pollinating them. This idea isn’t too far-fetched, as of course lots of deceptive flower morphologies are known in orchids (some mimic bees, fooling the males into trying to copulate with the flowers as a way to get the flower pollinated).

André also sent me pictures of many other new species in the genus. He adds:

This species belongs to a group of generally rare and bizarre species known as the section Epicrianthes of the genus Bulbophyllum (the largest orchid genus, with about 2000 species). These are little known even to orchid specialists, so I thought you might be interested to show some of them on your website. I attach pictures of 8 species, 5 of which were only described during the last 6 years, and only one more than 30 years ago. In my opinion these orchids are fascinating and deserve to be better known.

Here are some of them.

Bulbophyllum cimicinum Credit Andre Schuiteman

This species, too, has dangly bits that look like fruiting slime molds. Here’s one fungus that B. cimicinum may be mimicking:

Acyria nutans
Bulbophyllum macneiceae Credit Peter Jongejan
Bulbophyllum macrorhopalon Credit Andre Schuiteman
Bulbophyllum tarantula Credit Ed de Vogel
Bulbophyllum tindemansianum Credit Andre Schuiteman
Bulbophyllum johannuli Credit Peter Jongejan

The weird shape of many of these flowers remains to be explained. Perhaps some of them mimic other species, or are devices to release scent.

Many thanks to André for corresponding with me and sending the photos.


Schuiteman, A., J. Jan Vermeulen, E. De Vogel and A. Vogel. 2011.Nocturne for an unknown pollinator:  first-description of a night-flowering orchid (Bulbophyllum nocturnum). Botanical J. Linn. Soc. 167:344-350.

28 thoughts on “Reader discovers world’s first night-blooming orchid (and other cool species)

  1. Orchids often make me think of alien vulvae.

    Someone should study the Darwin’s Orchid Moth proboscis to see if we can’t get inspiration for new types of materials. It has a remarkable combination of rigidity and rollability.

    1. Somewhat less alien-appearing is the butterfly pea,, which crossed my radar due to the recently-discovered presence of cyclotides – (highly stable peptides involved in insect defense and now of interest to the biotech community) in that species.

      The synthesis of cyclotides is fascinating, too. A serine or cysteine protease clips at a target Asn residue, and then the N-terminus of the precursor peptide attacks the protease’s peptidyl ester intermediate, to form a new peptide bond and cyclizing the peptide in the process. Formation of three S-S bridges then helps make the structure relatively indestructible.

    2. According to my French teacher the collection of poems “les Fleurs du Mal” (the flowers of evil) by Charles Baudelaire was a reference both to orchids and to female genitalia so you are not the only one making that connection.

  2. Well done Andre et al. It must be really thrilling to make such an exciting discovery. If it flowers annually then you will have to open Kew at night!

    1. At the moment there is only one plant in cultivation, which is not at Kew but at the Hortus botanicus in Leiden, the Netherlands. The Leiden botanic garden is sometimes open at night, mainly when the famous Victoria amazonica (a kind of giant waterlily) flowers. That is another nocturnal wonder of the Plant Kingdom. Somehow I doubt that the orchid, with its 2 cm greenish flowers, will ever attract a crowd. A crowd of connoisseurs, perhaps. But that sounds like a contradiction in terms.

      Our night-flowering orchid does not appear to have a fixed flowering period, which is true for many orchid species from New Guinea.

      1. Seeing this story in the news brings to my mind a question that perhaps you can answer:

        Are there any known day-flowering orchids?

  3. André -thanks for sharing this wonderful extra information with us via Jerry. I thoroughly enjoyed reading your paper about this fascinating orchid! I would like to know if you have any idea at all about the potential role of scent versus visual cues? You mention a ‘fungus-like’ scent of another Bulbophyllum – has this scent been analysed? (i.e. with GCMS; which compounds are in the scent?). Have you considered ‘sucking the scent’ of your orchid & analysing it? (ideally comparing it to the scent of the slime mold! –We certainly found such a mimicry to be the case in a South African orchid earlier this year; see
    All else being equal, one would think that odour is a better fly-attractant at night than visual cues. But if so, then why would it look like a slime mould, instead of just having some sort of dangling apparatus to release the scent? Ahh, questions to be answered; yumyum!

    As an aside to Jerry’s digression about Darwin’s Angraecum: I think this story also gives us a good expression of Darwin’s thought process. When first sent the dry specimen of the orchid, he wrote to Joseph Hooker about the long spur: “Good Heavens what insect can suck it?” (Darwin to Hooker, 25.01.1862) — only five days later to send another letter, stating: “What a proboscis the moth that sucks it, must have!” (Darwin to Hooker, 30.01.1862) – you can almost imagine him in his office, amazed at this magnificent spur, mulling it over, then checking his books and formulating his hypothesis in a quite informal way (there are simply too few exclamation marks in science these days!).

    “pseudoblog”. Heh.

    1. It seems likely that a scent is needed to attract pollinators from a distance. A scent analysis is definitely something that would be worth doing. One downside of this particular species is that the University of Leiden would have to pay the lab technician overtime 🙂
      But we have no idea which particular species of slime mould (if any) we should compare it with, or how we could get hold of one.

      As in your South African orchid, a carrion smell is often present in other species of Bulbophyllum (along with vomit-, feces-, and rotten fish-like smells, I may add. Isn’t Nature beautiful?).

      I suspect that once a pollinator has landed on a flower of B. nocturnum, tactile cues may be more important than visual ones, especially when this happens after dark. Maybe the insect needs to be in contact with the slime mould-like appendages to confirm for itself that it has chosen the right spot to land. Then again, pollination may also take place just after sunrise, when the flower of B. nocturnum is still open. But that begs the question: why not open early in the morning, like many orchids do? Why open already well before midnight, when your aim is to attract an early riser?

      Science will be dead when there are no more questions to answer.

  4. I had to look twice at the video at the bottom of your post. At first I thought it was part of your blog, not realizing it was an advertisement. It shows Stephen Baldwin sitting at a table, and I thought what in the hell could this godbot have to say about this fascinating orchid. “The moth and this orchid are just two more of Gods methods of proving just how mysterious he is”, he would have blathered on I am sure. What then, Kirk Cameron on the symbiosis of the Creeping Thistle and bee? Sound the trumpets then for sure.

  5. Congratulations Andre, this is a very neat discovery. I also really liked the photos of the other Bulbophyllum species. The last couple of them reminded me of insects that had been attacked by those nasty insect-eating fungi, like this ant:

    Your Old World Bulbophyllum species and our New World pleurothallids show a lot of convergence. But yours seem to be more intricate and more surprising than ours; maybe ours are more recent and need more time to reach the level of your species.

    1. There are some wonderful examples of convergent evolution between old world Bulbophyllum species and new world pleurothallids. One particular Bulbophyllum species is aptly named B. lepanthiflorum (‘with flowers like Lepanthes‘, a neotropical orchid genus.) It even hides its flowers under the leaf, like many Lepanthes species do.

      Incidentally, Lepanthes is perhaps my favourite orchid genus, and you are lucky to live in an area where they are common. I happen to be co-discoverer and -describer of a particularly pretty species, L. telipogoniflora (see my avatar), from Colombia. The pollination mechanism of Lepanthes appears to me to be every bit as advanced as that of any Bulbophyllum, if not more so. What other flowers actually copy insect genitalia?

      1. Yes, Lepanthes are my favorites also. Congrats on L telepogoniflora, one of the most spectacular of them all. In my 60km x 60 km study area where I live, there are 100 species of Lepanthes!!! Many of them were new to science.

        Lepanthes not only copy the female genitalia of a fly, they actually bring the male fly to ejaculation!!!!

      2. Andre, any thoughts about the possibility that those last two Bulbophyllum are imitating the fruiting bodies of insect-eating fungi? They look very much like it.

          1. I don’t know either. But as you know, fungi do attract a lot of insects. I’ll try to do an experiment next time I see one of these fungus-sprouting bugs.

  6. The latter photos seem to be insect mimics to me; that’s the impression I got while scrolling through the post, although close inspection shows few, if any, one for one correspondences of parts.

    1. That’s what I thought, but it’s just an impression. Some of them look like spiders too, I don’t know how likely that is.

  7. I saw an amazing video somewhere of the moth that actually pollinates “Darwin’s orchid”; the narrator said it was the only such footage of the moth in action. But I can’t remember what program it appeared on! If someone here knows which program it was, or has a link to the video, it would be cool if you could share it. The long proboscis whipping around in slow motion while the moth hovers perfectly still is an incredible sight. Thanks.

      1. That’s it! Thanks! The footage appears a little different than I recall (i guess this is a testament to selective memory), but is still amazing.

  8. When Angraecum sesquipedale and its predicted moth pollinator are discussed it is often overlooked that Alfred Russell Wallace also made a substantial contribution. While Darwin only suggested some unspecified moth, Wallace, in 1867, even mentioned the species of moth of which the pollinator eventually turned out to be a subspecies.

    See here.

  9. As yet another orchidophile, I was glad to be referred to this post that I had missed when it first appeared. Subscribing in case there’s any more activity…Congrats, Andre, and thanks for sharing!

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