World's first night-flowering orchid is discovered

Botanists from the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew and the Netherlands Centre for Biodiversity Naturalis have described the first night-flowering orchid known to science on the island of New Britain, near New Guinea.

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View on map: Papua New Guinea,

22 Nov 2011

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Flower of the night-flowering orchid Bulbophyllum nocturnum

Flower of the night-flowering orchid Bulbophyllum nocturnum (Image: Andre Schuiteman)

For one night only

Bulbophyllum nocturnum, from the island of New Britain near 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. The discovery is published in the Botanical Journal of the Linnean Society.

…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.

Kew orchid specialist, André Schuiteman

There are only a relatively small number of plant species that have flowers which open at night and close during the day. Up until now, no orchids were known to be among them, despite the fact that many orchids are pollinated by moths. However, these moth-pollinated orchids all have flowers that remain open during the day, even if they are mainly pollinated after dark.

Discovering the orchid

Bulbophyllum nocturnum was discovered by Dutch orchid specialist Ed de Vogel on a field trip to the island of New Britain. He went there to collect orchids in a logged area and to take them back for cultivation at the Hortus Botanicus in Leiden, the Netherlands.

Under the care of garden manager Art Vogel, one of these plants 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 in 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.

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.

Close up of the flower

Close up of Bulbophyllum nocturnum flower (Image: Jaap Vermeulen)

Later that night…

To de Vogel’s 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. The flowers lasted only one night, which explained why the buds were seemingly about to open one day and withered the next.

Kew orchid specialist, André Schuiteman, and Leiden Bulbophyllum expert, Jaap Vermeulen, teamed up with de Vogel to investigate and describe this remarkable new species.

“This is another reminder that surprising discoveries can still be made", says André Schuiteman of the discovery. "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.

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5 comments on 'World's first night-flowering orchid is discovered'

Stefani Watt says

26/03/2012 4:33:01 PM | Report abuse

I've always said that I'm a night owl...instead, I'll now say I'm a night orchid! Seriously this is fascinating stuff. I love walking in my garden at night, dimly lit with a few solar ground spotlights. At night there's a whole other world to appreciate.

AM says

21/01/2012 9:01:26 PM | Report abuse

Sorry to be pedantic but New Britain is part of Papua New Guinea, and is a smaller island near the much bigger island of New Guinea (part of which is Papau New Guinea and part is in Indonesia). Anyway, I hope this discovery contributes to conserving the forests of Papua New Guinea for the benefit of locals...and everyone who likes orchids.

nanda yumnam says

07/12/2011 3:23:19 PM | Report abuse

i am doing research on orchidaceae. getting new things is interesting. thanx for the information.

Billy Bau says

02/12/2011 11:47:24 AM | Report abuse

This is truly an amazing orchid discovery for the island of New Britain.

Dorottya Pantea says

30/11/2011 7:34:53 PM | Report abuse

May this amazingly unique plant become commonplace, together with the tropical forests!!! All my consideration and respect towards the field researchers.

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