Friday, February 6, 2009

Hanging on by thread.

As has been stated before, Florida is at an intersection of the ranges of temperate species from the north and tropical species from the south. One such southern species, Cranichis muscosa, grows primarily in the Caribbean, West Indies, Central America, and northern South America. While some southern species, such as Encyclia cochleata, end up establishing themselves fairly well in the southern swamps, this orchid has never been common. It was first reported in 1903 in a collection most likely made in the Fakahatchee swamp. It had not been seen in Florida again for nearly a century. In 1991, a plant was reported and again in 2000, another suspect plant was reported in Miami-Dade County. This plant was subsequently stolen.

In 2004, a new small population was discovered somewhere in the Fakahatchee swamp area by Karen Relish and Mike Owen. This population is a closely guarded secret, so don't expect to see these plants in person anytime soon.

Interestingly enough, cultivated plants of this species from elsewhere in the Americas are very aggressive growers in the greenhouses of the Atlanta Botanical Gardens, seeding themselves regularly into pots where they are not welcome. One of these plants was gifted to Paul Martin Brown, and it is a photograph of one of eleven inflorescences on his plant which I present below.

The plants consist of a basal rosette of glossy leaves with strong veination. The color is a lovely medium bluish-green.

The flowers are tiny...being only about 5 mm across, so this requires a good macro lens, excellent lighting, and little breeze to obtain a good photograph. My Sigma 105mm macro with my Canon Digital Rebel XTi did an adequate job of capturing these tiny jewels.


Cranichis muscosa
The upper floral part with the green speckles is the lip. The two petals act as a small winged platform below and to the sides of the column. The lateral sepals fold downward while the dorsal sepal folds back against the ovary. The column is a curious shape, with two pairs of winglike projections on either side and a highly curious tooth which projects downward and in front of the dorsal sepal. This orchid is, again, a wonder of miniaturization, with this complex structure being achieved with only a few thousands of cells, as opposed to the millions-plus that would make up a larger orchid flower, such as a larger-flowered Cattleya.


Cranichis muscosa
Many thanks to Paul Martin Brown for allowing me to photograph his cultivated plant.

Enjoy!
---Prem
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