Beguiling Bulbophyllums: What’s Blooming in the Smithsonian Gardens Orchid Collection
Bulbophyllum is one of the largest orchid genera with around 2,000 species. This genera’s name refers to the leaf-bearing pseudobulbs that are characteristic of plants in this group. An encounter with a Bulbophyllum for the first time can be a rather unexpected olfactory experience, potentially unpleasant, but ultimately a fascinating example of brood site deception between plants and their pollinators.
One of the best examples of the odoriferous Bulbophyllum is Bulbophyllum echinolabium, a beautiful, large-flowered specimen with a putrid and pervasive stink. While the smell makes me want to get away fast rather than stick around to take more photographs, the plant’s fly pollinators are wooed closer by the ripe suggestion of rotting meat. Obviously they are deceived (beguiled, you could say) into pollinating the flower for no reward, and they leave without laying their eggs.
Not all Bulbophyllums exude such a foul odor. Many have a more floral or fruity scent to attract fruit fly pollinators. Others, like Bulbophyllum purpureorhachis ‘Joe Palermo’ have no detectable smell but are equally compelling with impressive rachises of flowers that curve towards the sky like cobras rising from the ground.
Another beautiful specimen in bloom is the otherworldly Bulbophyllum medusa, named after Medusa the Gorgon. The flowers’ sepals have evolved dramatically over time to mimic fungal mycelia which attract fungus gnat pollinators.
It is exceedingly difficult to choose just three Bulbophyllums to feature since there is such a diversity of form and color in this genus. We recently accessioned a large number of Bulbophyllum species into our collection and below are two others I couldn’t leave off this post. Bulbophyllum guttulatum, from section Cirrhopetalum, displays an arc of speckled flowers with bright purple lips. The much larger, green and brown mottled specimen is one of our current mysteries. It could be one of three similar species, B. arfakianum, B. frittilariflorum or B. burfordiense. Each species exhibits wide variation in phenotype, therefore an exact species determination must be made by comparing specific parts of the flower anatomy.
There is always something blooming in the Smithsonian Gardens Orchid Collection. Stay connected with us to see more plants from the collection!
-Julie Rotramel, Living Collections Specialist