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'Good Heavens what insect can suck it.'
The long, extended nectar spur of this orchid was a fascinating mystery to Charles Darwin as he pondered how on Earth it might get pollinated, and hypothesised the existence of a long tongued insect adapted to feed from it.
It wasn’t until decades after his death that the insect was found: a sphinx moth (Xanthopan praedicta) with an equally long tongue that could reach the sugary bounty at the base of the nectar spur.
Along with the famous finches and many others, this example of adaptation was crucial in Darwin’s development of his theory of evolution by natural selection.
Darwin’s orchid is only found in Madagascar, as an epiphytic species growing in the branches of trees.
The scientific name of Darwin’s orchid, sesquipedale, translates to 'one and a half feet', referring to the upper length of the nectar spur.
Darwin’s orchid is an epiphyte, meaning it grows non-parasitically within the branches of trees. It has two rows of narrow leaves that are around 27cm long and 3cm across, which split into two lobes at the end. The flower stems grow from the upper leaves, with two to six flowers growing on them, and can reach around a metre long. The flowers are creamy white, fleshy and star-like. Behind the lower lip of the flower extends a long nectar spur, which can reach up to 45cm long. In their native environment, the flowers appear between June and September.
Darwin’s orchid is occasionally grown as a houseplant by orchid enthusiasts.
Did you know?
Darwin’s orchid is sometimes referred to as the Christmas orchid, due to it flowering between December and January when grown in Europe.
The flowers of Darwin’s orchid, and most of the other Angraecum species, produce an intense aroma, but only at night time, to help the sphinx moths find the nectar.
Until 2021, the sphinx moth that pollinates Darwin’s orchid was thought to be a subspecies, when it became its own distinct species.
Where in the world?
Growing on trees, and very rarely rocks, in the lowlands of Madagascar.