World’s first night flowering orchid discovered on the island of New Britain
Embargoed 00.01 hours GMT 22 November 2011
Botanists from the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew and the Netherlands Centre for Biodiversity Naturalis have described the first night-flowering orchid known to science. The discovery is published in the Botanical Journal of the Linnean Society.
The new night flowering species, Bulbophyllum nocturnum, from the island of New Britain near Papua New Guinea, is the first known example of an orchid species with flowers that consistently open after dark and close in the morning. Its flowers last one night only.
For images of the Bulbophyllum nocturnum please click here
A relatively small number of plant species have flowers that open at night and close during the day (1). Until now, no orchids were known among them. This in spite of the fact that many orchids are pollinated by moths. But these moth-pollinated orchids all have flowers that remain open during the day, even if they are mainly pollinated after dark.
Bulbophyllum nocturnum was discovered by Dutch orchid specialist Ed de Vogel on a field trip to the island of New Britain, where he was allowed to collect some orchids in a logging area for cultivation at the Hortus Botanicus in Leiden, the Netherlands.
Under the care of garden manager Art Vogel one of these plant soon produced buds. Their opening was eagerly anticipated as de Vogel and his colleagues had already established that this plant was a member of the Epicrianthes group of orchids of the genus Bulbophyllum. Epicrianthes contains many rare and bizarre species, most of which have only been discovered recently as they occur in some of the remotest jungle habitats on earth (2).
Frustratingly, however, the buds all withered once they had seemingly reached the size at which they should open. Wanting to get to the bottom of this, de Vogel took the plant home with him one evening in order to find out exactly what happened to the buds.
To his surprise, the bud that was then present opened up at ten in the evening, long after dark, revealing the flower of an undescribed species.
Observations on subsequent buds confirmed that they all opened around 10pm, and closed the next morning around 10am (3). The flowers lasted only one night, which explained why the buds were seemingly about to open one day and withered the next.
Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew orchid specialist, André Schuiteman, and Leiden Bulbophyllum expert, Jaap Vermeulen, teamed up with de Vogel to investigate and describe this remarkable new species.
Says André Schuiteman of the discovery, “This is another reminder that surprising discoveries can still be made. But it is a race against time to find species like this that only occur in primeval tropical forests. As we all know, such forests are disappearing fast. It is therefore increasingly important to obtain funding for the fieldwork required to make such discoveries.”
Why Bulbophyllum nocturnum has adopted a night flowering habit is unknown and requires further investigation. However, it may be speculated that its pollinators are midges that forage at night (4).
In February 2012 Kew’s Tropical Extravaganza festival (4 February – 4 March 2012) will celebrate the beauty and diversity of orchids. Orchids make up what is probably the largest plant family on earth, with an estimated 25,000 species. Their flowers show a tremendous range of variation in size, colour and shape. For more information about Tropical Extravaganza click here.
André Schuiteman and Jaap Vermeulen are available for interview, please contact Bronwyn Friedlander, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew press office on +44 (0)208 332 5607 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Schuiteman, A., Vermeulen, J.J., de Vogel, E. & Vogel, A. 2011. Nocturne for an unknown pollinator: first description of a night-flowering orchid (Bulbophyllum nocturnum) is available to download from http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1095-8339.2011.01183.x/abstract
Images of Bulbophyllum nocturnum are available to download from http://www.kew.org/press/images/world's_first_night_flowering_orchid.html
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Bulbophyllum nocturnum is not yet in cultivation at Kew Gardens. It is however growing at Hortus Botanicus in Leiden. An alcohol-preserved specimen of Bulbophyllum nocturnum is held in Kew’s Herbarium,
Species page with further information about Bulbophyllum nocturnum http://www.kew.org/plants-fungi/Bulbophyllum-nocturnum.htm
Notes to editors
(1) Examples of plant species with flowers that open after dark and close before or shortly after sunrise include the queen of the night cactus (Selenicereus grandiflorus), the midnight horror tree (Oroxylum indicum) and the night blooming jasmine (Cestrum nocturnum).
(2) Bulbophyllum nocturnum belongs to a group of species, Epicrianthes, within the genus Bulbophyllum, that are noteworthy for their bizarre flowers with strange appendages, which often resemble leggy insects, small hairy spiders or intricate sea-creatures. These appendages are often attached by extremely thin filaments, which cause them to move erratically in the slightest breeze. The wriggling flowers look more like small creatures than like parts of a plant.
(3) This was observed in cultivation in the Netherlands in winter, which implies that the flowers closed a few hours after sunrise.
(4) Orchids with insect-like flowers are often pollinated by pseudo-copulation, as they usually mimic female insects to attract males (the orchid genus Ophrys is a well-known example). However, this is probably not the case for Epicrianthes species, nor is it likely that the flowers mimic prey animals to lure carnivorous insects. The midges observed to visit some Epicrianthes species did not display behaviour consistent with pseudo-copulation, while they were evidently too small to act as ‘attackers’. The authors point out the striking resemblance between the appendages of the flowers and the fruiting bodies of certain slime moulds (Myxomycota). It may be speculated that the pollinators are midges that normally feed on slime moulds or small fungi.
Kew has probably the largest team in the world dedicated to the description, cataloguing, research and conservation of orchids. Their subjects range from taxonomy (classification), pollination biology and orchid-fungus interactions to anatomy, biochemistry and DNA profiling. As orchids become more threatened in the wild by over-collection and destruction of their habitats, Kew’s work is becoming ever more important to ensure that every possible opportunity is taken to protect them.http://www.kew.org/plants-fungi/plant-fungi-groups/orchids/index.htm
The Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew is a world famous scientific organisation, internationally respected for its outstanding living collection of plants and world-class Herbarium as well as its scientific expertise in plant diversity, conservation and sustainable development in the UK and around the world. Kew Gardens is a major international visitor attraction. Its landscaped 132 hectares and RBG Kew’s country estate, Wakehurst Place, attract nearly 2 million visitors every year. Kew was made a UNESCO World Heritage Site in July 2003 and celebrated its 250th anniversary in 2009. Wakehurst Place is home to Kew's Millennium Seed Bank, the largest wild plant seed bank in the world. RBG Kew and its partners have collected and conserved seed from 10 per cent of the world's wild flowering plant species (c.30, 000 species). The aim is to conserve 25 per cent by 2020, and its enormous potential for future conservation can only be fulfilled with the support of the public and other funders.
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For more information about the Hortus Botanicus in Leiden http://www.hortusleiden.nl/
For more information about the Netherlands Centre for Biodiversity Naturalis http://www.nhn.leidenuniv.nl/index.php/nhn/institute/nlcb/
The Linnean Society of London is the world’s oldest active biological society. Founded in 1788, the Society takes its name from the great Swedish naturalist, Carl Linnaeus (1707-1778) who developed the system of binominal nomenclature. This system today provides the fundamental framework for knowledge of the biota of the Earth, supporting effective conservation measures and the sustainable use of biodiversity. The Society is the custodian of Linnaeus’ original library and collections and is creating a digital archive, enabling full global access. It encourages and communicates scientific advances through its three world-class journals, open meetings and website. The Society’s Fellowship is international and its Fellows are drawn from all walks of life including professional scientists and amateur naturalists. The Society welcomes anyone interested in natural history, in all its forms. www.linnean.org
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