Orchid Society of
Western Australia (Inc)
Big Orchids - The Genus Grammatophyllum!
This article was planned during a recent visit to New Guinea recently
on a fishing trip that included a little orchid exploration as well. While
fishing for black bass in a river on the north coast of New Britain, in
a tree overhanging the river, we saw a large flowering plant of Grammatophyllum
speciosum. In the past, I often have written articles about little
plants (botanical curiosities) and thought that it was about time to look
at the other end of the spectrum.
This Asian genus includes some of the
world's largest orchid plants. In their natural habitat, they often grow
to several metres in diameter, and can have hundreds if not thousands
of flower racemes. The plant I saw in the preceding photograph was nowhere
near that size, but I recall a conversation we had with the proprietor
of Burnham Nursery in Devon, UK about a large plant they which required
a furniture removal van to take to a show. A plant of Grammatophyllum
speciosum reported to have weighed two tons was one of the highlights
in the 1851 exhibition at the Crystal Palace. Apparently, this species
is also in the Guinness Book of Records with two metre canes and three
metre flower racemes weighing in at more than 2000lbs.
Grammatophyllum was established
by C L Blume in 1825, and initially comprised 12 rather confused species
which were revised by Schlecter in 1915. The type species is Grammatophyllum
speciosum. In particular, there continues to be confusion over the
name Grammatophyllum scriptum which was given to two distinct species
by G E Rumph. There are two distinct growth forms in the genus - the first
has long pseudobulbs (really fleshy stems bearing leaves) and the other
has short, thick pseudobulbs that are not covered by the leaf-bases, and
bear only a few leaves toward the apex. Schlecter placed these two forms
in sections Gabertia and Pattonia respectively. The name is derived from
the Greek gramma (letter) and phyllon (leaf) in reference to the dark
conspicuous markings on the sepals and petals. The flowers have large
showy sepals and petals with a smaller lip that has 3 low keels The habitat
is South East Asia, Indonesia, New Guinea, the Philippines and Polynesia.
This genus is closely related to Cymbidium,
and is in the Subfamily Vandoideae, Tribe Cymbidieae and
Subtribe Cyrtopodiinae, differing specifically in the pollinia
which are directly attached to the viscidium in Cymbidium and attached
by separate straps to the viscidium in Grammatophyllum. One of
the distinctive features of this genus is the basket of aerial roots that
point upward to catch leaf litter that feeds the plant. These aerial roots
are very evident in the New Britain photo above. This habit is also seen
in Ansellia africana, and some plants of Dendrobium speciosum
will have large numbers of aerial roots, though nowhere near as pronounced
As I have done in previous articles, where there are
only a small number of species (with many synonyms and varietal names),
I will take a closer look at each of the species starting with the type
species Grammatophyllum speciosum Blume 1825.
This is a very large plant with erect pseudobulbs up
to 3m in length and 5cm in diameter that occurs in South East Asia in
Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, Malaysia, Borneo, Java, Moluccas, the
Philippines, Sulawesi, Sumatra, Bismarck Islands, Papua and New Guinea
and the Solomon Islands. It was originally described by Blume from a plant
that was collected in the forest near Bogor on the island of Java. It
is found in lowland forests as an epiphyte or occasional lithophyte, often
adjacent to streams and rivers at low to moderate elevations.
Dr H Valmayor 1984 in her book "Orchidiana Philippiniana"
says that this species has been reported with canes to 7m in length, and
is one of the eight species of Grammatophyllum that is found in
the Philippines. Grammatophyllum speciosum can be difficult to
grow and flower, not only because it takes an enormous amount of room,
but also because it requires winter heat plus good air movement. Otherwise,
it can be susceptible to soft rots and water moulds that can quickly kill
even a large plant. It is also reported to only flower every second or
third year. However, in the tropics, I have seen large clumps of this
plant growing very vigorously out in full sun that seem to flower every
Grammatophyllum elegans Rchb. f. 1882 is another Philippines species
(also been reported in Fiji although Jim Cootes suggests that it might
just be a colour variant of Grammatophyllum scriptum and that the
species is in fact endemic to the Philippines) growing at low elevations
from sea level to 300 meters. It is another large hot growing epiphyte
with stout, flattened pseudobulbs that carry up to four apical, elliptic-oblong,
30cm leaves. Flowering in spring, the up to 1m racemes have up to 50 long-lasting,
slightly fragrant, spotted flowers.
Grammatophyllum elegans is the pod parent of the best known hybrid,
Grammatophyllum Tiger's Paw registered in 1980.
Grammatophyllum kinabaluense Ames
& C.Schweinf. 1920 is a Malaysian species, coming from, as the name
Mt Kinabalu region in northern Borneo in lowlands and hill forests at
low elevations to 900 m, growing as an epiphyte on old primary forest
hardwood trees. It is also a large sized, hot to warm growing species
with an inflorescence that can reach 3 to 4 meters long. This species
is not common in cultivation.
Grammatophyllum martae Quisumb. ex Valmayor
& D. Tiu 1984 is a recently discovered species endemic to the Philippines.
Found at elevations of sea level to 300 meters, it is also a large, hot
growing epiphyte with large, slightly flattened pseudobulbs carrying up
to 4, oblanceolate, leathery, 60 cm long leaves. Spring flowers are carried
on a basal, stout, many flowered, up to1.5 m inflorescence. Flowers: are
up to 4.5 cm wide, dark brown with yellow markings.
Dr. Eduardo Quisimbing originally described this species; however the
name was not published. Subsequently, Professor Helen Valmayor and Danilo
A. Tiu published the byname in 1983 in the Philippines Orchid Review.
The species was named after Mrs Martha Montilla Rivilla, a Philippine
orchid enthusiast from Negros Occidental, in the Philippines. This species
is found only on Negros.
Grammatophyllum measuresianum Weathers 1889 (syn Grammatophyllum
large Philippine epiphytic, hot growing species found at elevations below
500m with ovoid, maturely wrinkled pseudobulbs enveloped by a few membraneous
sheaths, carrying 4 to 6, apical, broadly lanceolate, to 60 cm long leaves
that blooms on a basal, upright to semi-arching, 1.5 m, many flowered,
racemose inflorescence that blooms in the summer with imperfect flowers
in the bottom few rows and then many faintly fragrant, waxy flowers for
the rest of the expanding over time inflorescence.
Grammatophyllum multiflorum Lindl. 1838 is another large growing
species from the Philippines.
Inflorescences of mature orchids reach a length up to 1.50 meters and
are packed with up to 100 long-lasting, showy flowers. Like its relatives,
this species a hot and humid climate with a lot of sun. Its single flowers
reach a size of about 5 cm, and can be in flowers for up to 9 months.
There is also a citrinum form, seen shown in the picture on the left.
This species flowers Spring - Autumn
Grammatophyllum pantherinum Rchb.f 1878 is found in New Guinea
in lowland forests at elevations
from sea level to 1200m. However, there is some disagreement between taxonomists
about this species, some asserting that it is synonymous with Grammatophyllum
speciosum and/or Grammatophyllum papuanum It is a large hot
growing epiphyte with stout, elongated, densely leafed stems with many
internodes and carrying strap-shaped, acute, midrib prominent below, coriaceous
leaves. The roots often form 'nest-like' clumps which look quite spectacular.
It blooms spring through autumn on basal, stout, many flowered, inflorescences
up to 2 m in length. It has triangular, obtuse, concave floral bracts
and large, fleshy, fragrant flowers.
It is reported that on Grammatophyllum papuanum inflorescences,
which can bear more than fifty flowers, the lowest flowers often have
no labellum. This species can be found high up in trees in exposed situations,
while Grammatophyllum scriptum can be found on Manus Island close to the
sea. Jay Phal acknowledges the differing views but choose to consider
them separate species for now.
Grammatophyllum rumphianum Miq. 1869 is another large species from
Borneo and Maluku where
is found growing as an epiphyte in cool to intermediate conditions. The
1.2 m arched flower raceme has 5-6cm flowers in Spring-Autumn
scriptum [Lindley]Blume 1849, the Written Grammatophyllum is
once again, a large to giant-sized hot growing epiphyte from Borneo, Lesser
Sunda Islands, Moluccas, Philippines, Sulawesi, Solomon Islands, Bismarck
Archipelago, Papua and New Guinea, Fiji and Santa Cruz Islands. It occurs
at low elevations (sea level to 100 m), always close to the coast and
epiphytic on tree trunks and branches overhanging beaches, lagoons, and
coconut plantations. Grammatophyllum scriptum is a bright light
orchid. Each pseudobulb has 5 to 8 broad, coriaceous, linear-ligulate,
dull green, basally clasping leaves. The upright or arching flower racemes
are more than a metre long, and each mature pseudobulb may have more than
one flower. This giant of the orchid world has up to 100 waxy flowers
per raceme, often with a few imperfect flowers at the base of the raceme.
The following photos are the frma citrinum Valmayor & D.Tiu in H.L.Valmayor
1984 and normal form.
The Amboin Island native people make a paste from the pseudobulb of Grammatophyllum
scriptum to heal sores, and others within this species' range use
this plant to cure intestinal ailments and a cleanser for worms. People
of the Spice Islands have been known to make a love potion from the seeds
of this species.
Interestingly, a dwarf form Grammatophyllum scriptum var kiilani
is now being marketed to hobbyists unable to cope with the huge sized
Grammatophyllum scriptum. This newly introduced miniature flowers
with the same colouration as its large parents yet seldom gets over .30cm
tall and flowers in a 60mm inch pot.
Other varieties and colour forms are:
Grammatophyllum scriptum var. boweri (F.Muell.) Schltr.
Grammatophyllum scriptum var minahassae Schltr. 1911
Grammatophyllum scriptum var. tigrinum (Lindl.) Holttum
Grammatophyllum scriptum is synonymous with:
Grammatophyllum boweri FvM.,
Grammatophyllum guilelmii Kraenzl. 1894,
Grammatophyllum guilielmi-secundi Krzl. 1894,
Grammatophyllum leopardinum Rchb.f. 1888
Grammatophyllum multiflorum var. tigrinum Lindl. 1842, and
Grammatophyllum seegerianum hort. 1896
In an article I found while researching the genus Grammatophyllum,
the author noted that while Singapore is only a small island, it is the
home to the largest orchid plant in the world, Grammatophyllum speciosum.
Known as the tiger orchid, because of the markings on the flowers that
resemble the skin of a tiger, it is extremely rare if not already extinct
in the wild in Singapore. However, it can still be found in Indochina,
Peninsular Malaysia, Thailand, Borneo, Indonesia, the Philippines and
the Pacific Islands (Seidenfaden and Wood 1992). Grammatophyllum speciosum
was last found in the wild in Tuas and Pulau Ubin. As a mature plant
might weigh more than a ton, it is surprising that such a large plant
could live on the trunk of a tree, and accordingly, the very large specimens
are generally found on large, mature hardwood trees in primary forest.
The Singapore Orchid Garden led a venture to re-establish the species
in Singapore, and, from a self-pollination of Grammatophyllum speciosum
in the National Orchid Garden, a number of 2 year old seedlings were
attached in 1999 to Durian, Rambutan, Mango, Angsana, Tembusu and Rain
trees in Pulau Ubin.
Seedlings were also planted on trees in the Gardens, around the Visitor
Centre at the Bukit Timah Nature Reserve, and the Orchard Boulevard area
in the heart of the city. Factors that appear to have played an important
role in the survival of introduced seedlings include the microclimate
of the area (relative humidity, for example), texture of bark of the host,
presence of other epiphytes and the size of seedlings. For example, seedlings
planted in areas with high relative humidity tended to survive better
than those in dry areas. In Pulau Ubin, the seedlings established in a
damp area inside a secondary forest were much healthier and more vigorous
than those growing near the sea where the breeze tends to dry the bark
faster. Texture of the bark is important because certain barks tend to
retain more moisture. For instance, Rain trees are generally better hosts
than Tembusu. Similarly, trees that support more epiphytes tend to be
better hosts than those with fewer epiphytes -that is ,where conditions
are suitable for other epiphytes. While I have not visited the Pulau Ubin
area, I have seen large plants of Grammatophyllum scriptum at the
Bukit Timah Nature Reserve and the Singapore Botanic Gardens .
Grammatophyllum stapeliiflorum [Teijsm. & Binn.] J.J.Sm. 1905
is a medium sized, epiphytic, warm to hot growing species from Malaysia,
Sumatra, Java, Celebes and the Philippines. Found in rainforests on large
mature tree trunks at elevations of 200 to 1000m. it has the typical long
racemose inflorescence with waxy, long-lasting flowers. However, unlike
others in the genus, the flowers are foul-smelling suggesting pollination
by carrion flies or similar.
One of the major problems associated with growing this genus (other than
size) is that they seem particularly susceptible to soft rots, perhaps
generally bought on by loss of active roots. This condition seems to be
triggered by over watering and media breakdown, suggesting that if possible
(conditions permitting), slab or similar mounting is a better option than
potting in media. I have lost several large plants (7-10 pseudobulbs)
to soft rots like erwinia, pythium or phytophthera that rapidly progress
through the pseudo-bulbs turning them brown. Cutting back the infected
bulbs and applying fungicide did not save the plants. Reading several
on-line articles, the over-watering problem was confirmed by a number
of authors who recommended the use of styrofoam 'peanuts' for the bottom
50% of the pot, with the remainder filled with rocks and large pieces
of bark. Eventually, these plants grew out of the terracotta pot with
the living root basket totally above the pot.
So, the secret to success seems to be managing your conditions to ensure
that the root basket around the pseudobulbs stays healthy. Allowing the
plant to completely dry between waterings, ensuring good fresh air movement
and access to oxygen are critical elements of effective plant husbandry
for this genus. With good drainage, careful watering and proactive environmental
management, we should be able to grow these very desirable species in
a shadehouse with winter covering. I have not found them to be particularly
susceptible or attractive to the usual insect pests as they are generally
very robust plants. However, I have seen Cymbidium Mosaic Virus
affected plants in the wild so some care should be taken when sourcing
plants. In summary, given the abundant, attractive flowers, I recommend
that you acquire and grow some members of this genus.