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African Affinities
Part III: The Surprising Relationships of Some of Florida's Wild Orchids
Text and photographs by Chuck McCartney

Besides the four orchid species Florida has in common with Africa (Part I, Orchids, February 2000) and the four other species that are closely related to their African ancestors (Part II, Orchids, March 2000), Florida also shares five other genera with Africa. Four of these genera are, like Polystachya, Liparis and Eulophia from Part I, among the 10 that Dressler (1981) considers to be the only Pantropical genera of orchids. One additional orchid genus in Florida became Pantropical only with human help.

Perhaps the most interesting shared genus is Bulbophyllum. This giant group of orchids seems to be a taxonomic morass. The number of species listed for the genus ranges from 500 (Luer, 1972) to 1,000 (Dressler, 1993). And Bulbophyllum expert Emly Siegerist, in a personal communication, reports that 2,770 names have been published as Bulbophyllum species. Of course, many of those names now have been reassigned to other genera or have been reduced to synonymy.

But no matter how many total species there are, the greatest number occur in Southeast Asia, making it appear to be the center of evolution for the genus.

In Africa, the estimated number of species also varies. Joyce Stewart and Esme F. Hennessy, in Orchids of Africa: A Select Review (1981), list 90 species for the continent. But Siegerist writes: "By my count there are 334 species of the genus in Africa, but please bear in mind that there are as many opinions on what comprises a valid species and what is a synonym as there are orchid growers!"

For the New World, Siegerist lists 25 species. Although this is speculation, it seems logical to theorize that these species probably evolved from African ancestors.

Of the 25 New World bulbophyllums, one species, Bulbophyllum pachyrhachis, has made a tenuous entry into the wilds of South Florida. It was first discovered deep in the watery recesses of the Fakahatchee Strand in 1956 by legendary orchid explorer Fred J. Fuchs, Jr. Later, Carlyle Luer photographed it there in February 1961 (Luer, 1972). It has been seen a few times since then, but access to the more remote portions of the Fakahatchee has become exceedingly difficult in the years since the strand was purchased by the State of Florida as a nature preserve starting in the early 1970s. Several recent arduous forays into the heart of the strand, including into known former haunts of this orchid, have failed to find any plants.

Collectors may have extirpated what was only a tiny colony of this orchid, which is widespread in Mexico, Central America, northern South America and the Antilles. But perhaps a few plants remain scattered in the 126-square-mile vastness of the Fakahatchee. However, it has been years since anyone has seen Florida's only Bulbophyllum species in the wild.

Click to EnlargeVanilla
Dressler, in The Orchids: Natural History and Classification (1981), considers Vanilla to be one of the two earliest orchid genera to achieve a Pantropical distribution. (The other is the little-known terrestrial genus Corymborkis, with eight species.)

Vanilla now is considered to consist of about 100 species worldwide (Dressler, 1993). Stewart and Hennessy (1981) list eight species for Africa. Kenneth M. Cameron of The New York Botanical Garden says in a personal communication that a recent count shows about half the earth's species of Vanilla occurring in the New World. Of these, five have been recorded in Florida.

The leafless Vanilla barbellata, commonly called worm vine because of the appearance of the plant, is probably the most common member of the genus in Florida, being found in wet areas of the Florida Keys and across the southern tip of the peninsula in Dade County and the southern part of mainland Monroe County.

Despite the species' less-than-appealing common name, V. barbellata is among the largest-flowered and most beautiful of Florida's native orchids, producing short-lived blossoms that resemble some Brazilian bifoliate Cattleya species.

Florida's other leafless Vanilla species, Vanilla dilloniana, has been reported only once, from a long-destroyed tropical hardwood hammock on the south bank of the Miami River. Pieces of plants from this colony have been shared among orchid growers in South Florida so that it is seen occasionally in local collections.

Vanilla dilloniana is by far the most beautiful of Florida's native vanillas, and it is a shame that it has been lost in the wild. The large flowers have green sepals and petals and a ruffled lip of rich reddish purple, with a yellow crest.

Of the leafy vanillas, Vanilla phaeantha is a fairly common sight in the Fakahatchee Strand, where it is seen zigzagging up the trunks of bald cypress trees (Taxodium distichum). The yellowish-green flowers resemble a large version of the commercial vanilla, Vanilla planifolia.

The broad-leaved Vanilla inodora (sometimes listed as Vanilla mexicana) was first found in a small area of tree islands in the eastern Everglades southwest of Homestead in 1953, again by Fred J. Fuchs, Jr., this time in the company of his father (Luer, 1972). Collectors soon decimated the small population, and the tree islands later were destroyed by wildfires. However, in 1980, a second colony was discovered some 150 miles to the north, in coastal Martin County (Richardson, Hansen and Sauleda, 1985). At this site, and a second nearby population, the species appears to be healthy and relatively safe.

This is also a beautiful Vanilla species, albeit different in appearance from V. dilloniana or V. barbellata. The apple-green flowers have beautifully undulate edges. The pure white lip sports a long, narrowly v-shaped yellow callus. The wavy edges of the sepals and petals give the flowers the look of a Schomburgkia.

The fifth of Florida's "native" vanillas may not truly be a native after all. This is V. planifolia (which some authorities are now confusingly calling Vanilla mexicana), the species from which most commercial vanilla extract is derived. The few spots where this orchid is known to occur in Florida are in association with sites of former human habitations, leading to the theory that this species may have been brought to Florida in pre-Columbian times by Indians trading with cultures in Mesoamerica, the natural home of V. planifolia (Luer, 1972).

Worldwide, there are some 600 species of Habenaria as the genus is now understood, with the removal of such marginally related genera as the temperate-climate Platanthera (Dressler, 1993). Of these 600 species, 200 are reported for Africa (Stewart and Hennessy, 1981). Many species also grow in the New World, and four true habenarias occur in Florida.

Click to EnlargeThe rarest is Habenaria distans, which is found in swamp forests in southwest Florida in and near the Fakahatchee Strand, with an oddly disjunct population reported for Highlands County in the southern part of Central Florida.

In the south end of the state, the most common species is Habenaria odontopetala (now reduced to synonymy under the name Habenaria floribunda by some authors, such as Wunderlin, 1998).

The northernmost true Habenaria in the Western Hemisphere is Habenaria repens, the delightful little water spider orchid. This aquatic species is found sparingly in southern Florida, although it is fairly frequent in the Fakahatchee Strand. However, it becomes common in watery habitats farther north in the state, and it extends northward as far as coastal North Carolina and westward along the Gulf coast to Texas and then into Mexico and tropical America, where it is widespread.

Click to EnlargeThe prettiest of Florida's habenarias is Habenaria quinqueseta, a species of pinelands that ranges from the Lower Keys throughout Florida, up the Atlantic coast to South Carolina and along the Gulf coast to eastern Texas.

This genus related to Liparis has about 300 species worldwide (Dressler, 1993), with seven species in Africa (Stewart and Hennessy, 1981) and a number of species in the New World. Luer (1975) lists eight species for the United States and Canada, although that number may be low in light of recent taxonomic changes. Only two members of the genus grow in Florida.

Malaxis spicata, a two-leaved species, occurs from the swamps of the Big Cypress as far north as coastal Virginia, as well as in the West Indies.

Malaxis unifolia has a much wider range, occurring throughout the eastern United States and adjacent areas of southern Canada as far north as Newfoundland on the Atlantic coast. Oddly, it also occurs from Mexico into northern Central America, as well as in Cuba and Jamaica.

In Florida, however, there are records of this species only as far south as Hernando County on the Gulf coast.

Although 76 species of Zeuxine are reported worldwide (Dressler, 1993), this genus is primarily Asian. Just three species are reported for Africa (Stewart and Hennessy, 1981).

One species, though, has made it to the New World thanks to humans. This is Zeuxine strateumatica, a species from Southeast Asia that now has naturalized throughout Florida. It also occurs in adjacent coastal areas of southern Georgia. And because it occurs in the Pensacola area at the far-western end of Florida's Panhandle, it is safe to assume that it's probably present in adjacent coastal areas o Alabama. It also occurs in the Bahamas (Correll and Correll, 1982).

This little terrestrial species is often overlooked by orchid lovers, who tread on it in their lawns. This habitat accounts for one of the orchid's common names, lawn orchid.

That name also gives a clue to the suspected method of introduction of this orchid into Florida. It is theorized that it came to the state among seeds of centipede grass (Eremochloa ophiuroides), which were imported from China for use as a turf grass. First reported in Florida in 1936 from western Indian River County (Ames, 1938), in just 64 years, this orchid has spread to its current range in the United States and the Bahamas. Along with Oeceoclades maculata, it is the only widely naturalized orchid in Florida.

The author thanks the following individuals for kindly offering their help and expertise during the preparation of this article: Eric A. Christenson, PhD, for information on Polystachya and Liparis, as well as for other taxonomic advice; Jeffrey Wood of the Orchid Herbarium at Britain's Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, for his comments on Pteroglossaspis; Kenneth M. Cameron, PhD, of The New York Botanical Garden for information on New World species of Vanilla; Harold Wanless, PhD, chairman of the Geology Department at the University of Miami and Jay P. Muza, PhD, of the Department of Natural Sciences, Broward Community College Central Campus, Davie, Florida, for their help in understanding Florida's early geologic history; Patricia L. Phares for obtaining the satellite image of Hurricane Andrew used in Part I; and Betty Wargo for lending her photograph of Pteroglossaspis ecristata used in Part II.

Ames, Oakes. 1938. Zeuxine strateumatica in Florida. Botanical Museum Leaflets, Harvard University 6(3):37-45.

Correll, Donovan Stewart, and Helen B. Correll. 1982. Flora of the Bahama Archipelago. J. Cramer, Vaduz.

Dressler, Robert L. 1981. The Orchids: Natural History and Classification. Harvard University Press, Cambridge.

__. 1993. Phylogeny and Classification of the Orchid Family. Dioscorides Press, Portland.

Luer, Carlyle A. 1972. The Native Orchids of Florida. The New York Botanical Garden, Bronx.

__. 1975. The Native Orchids of the United States and Canada Excluding Florida. The New York Botanical Garden, Bronx.

Richardson, Donald R., Bruce F. Hansen, and Ruben P. Sauleda. 1985. The Rediscovery of Vanilla mexicana Mill. (Orchidaceae) in Florida, Florida Scientist 48(2):80-82.

Stewart, Joyce, and Esme F. Hennessy. 1981. Orchids of Africa: A Select Review. Houghton Mifflin Co., Boston.

Wunderlin, Richard P. 1998. Guide to the Vascular Plants of Florida. University Press of Florida, Gainesville.

Click to EnlargeChuck McCartney, a former assistant editor (1984 to 1988) and editor (1988 to 1989) of AOS Bulletin, is an avid student of Florida' s native orchid flora. He currently works for The Miami Herald - 2546 Scott St., Hollywood, FL 33020-2357.

Come and join us as we explore this wonderful group of plants.