On a remote island in Papua New Guinea, a group of Dutch scientists have uncovered the world’s only known orchid to produce flowers exclusively at night that die by the next morning.
Of more than 25,000 species in the orchid, only a handful flower in the evening. The new orchid, dubbed Bulbophyllum nocturnum, is the first known one whose flowers shrivel and fall off before dawn breaks.
Botanist André Schuiteman from the Royal Botanical Gardens in the UK, one of the team who described the unique flower in the recent issue of the Botanical Journal of the Linnean Society, hailed it as “another reminder that surprising discoveries can still be made.”
“The discovery of Bulbophyllum nocturnum is important for various reasons,” Schuiteman says. “It demonstrates that there are still gaps in our knowledge of tropical orchids and poses interesting biological questions: Why did night flowering evolve in this particular species and not in other orchid groups? Why does this species flower at night?”
Discovery of a rare orchid
Orchid specialist Dr Ed de Vogel from Hortus Botanicus in the Netherlands, discovered the specimen in a logging area on the PNG island of New Britain during a research trip.
After careful examination, he figured it to be part of the genus Bulbophyllum, which contains many unusual and rare species. De Vogel said he eagerly awaited the opening of its buds, but once they reached the size at which they should have opened, they withered.
He took the plant home to figure out what was happening and found the buds actually opened up after nightfall. In order to flower only for one night, the Bulbophyllum nocturnum “must have a good attraction” for its pollinators, he says. Schuiteman suspects the orchid has adapted some of its features to resemble midges’ favourite food source: slime moulds.
Schuiteman and De Vogel are planning a trip to Papua New Guinea, to look for more rare or even unknown orchid species. The botanists are currently writing a book about the orchids of New Guinea, which will be published next year.
Andre Scuiteman, Jaap Jan Vermeulen, Ed de Vogel, & Art Vogel (2011). Nocturne for an unknown pollinator: first description of a night-flowering orchid (Bulbophyllum nocturnum) Botanical Journal of the Linnean Society, 167 (3), 344-350 : 10.1111/j.1095-8339.2011.01183.x