ABACO PLANTS & FLOWERS: AN ORCHID MYSTERY
Recently I was contacted by someone who had found an unusual orchid on Abaco and wanted to find out more about it, starting with ID. Lucy, an English botanist who has been visiting Abaco with her husband for many years, discovered a strange wild orchid species that did not appear in any of her books. So she turned to Detective Harbour who, unknown to her, is mostly paralysed with hopelessness when it comes to plant ID (except hibiscus, obvs). But he can sometimes find the people who know these things…
Lucy’s photos showed a striking, tall-stemmed plant growing from an exposed round root. She found 3 plants in Cherokee near Watching Bay; and another growing randomly beside the road at the airport – ‘bizarrely’, as she points out. She (and I) assumed the orchid to be a native species, and hopefully a rare one. I couldn’t track it down online so I got the views of Mark Bennet at the Leon Levy Preserve, and the BNT plant expert Ethan Freid. Both agreed that the orchid is Eulophia graminea.
Disappointingly, this orchid species turns out not to be a rare native one at all – which explains the problem of searching for it in books and online as a Bahamas species. It is in fact a non-native invasive plant from south east Asia. It has apparently been spreading through the Bahamas over the last 10 years or so, having originally been introduced into the region in south Florida. So, while of interest, the orchid does not really ‘belong’ – unlike Encyclia Inaguensis which Laine Snow has helpfully identified as the most similar Bahamian orchid.
This raises the ‘Brown-headed Cowbird Conundrum‘. The plant is here on Abaco. By rights it has no business to be. It has probably arrived from Florida, where it has no business to be either. So the big question is, does its presence impact on native flora species in any adverse way?
- Is it a benign addition to the plant species of the Bahamas, that in 100 years time will be fondly viewed as a native and appearing in books / online as local.
- Or is it an unwelcome intruder, quick to spread and slow to eradicate, aggressively gaining an increasing hold on the precious soil and water resources on Abaco and exterminating the native orchid species in the process (cf in the UK Himalayan Balsam / Giant Hogweed / Japanese Knotweed).
- Or somewhere in-between – not exactly welcome and trouble free, but something the local flora can get along with, without unacceptable levels of damage to the local species. Just about tolerable.
SO, WHICH OF THE THREE IS IT?
Well, I’m afraid Eulophia graminea is in category 2 – the real brown-headed cowbird category. It was first discovered in Miami in 2007. The bulbs from which the plants grow are hard to dig up. They are covered in little roots, each one of which has the potential to become a new plant. Already it has spread rapidly in Florida, and has now been found growing in most types of plant habitat, from maritime to rockland. In other words, it is not at all good news.
OH NO! WHAT’S TO BE DONE?
Well, first I would not advise unilateral action… I take a tough line, though, on potentially damaging non-natives – namely, remove them before they spread uncontrollably and ineradicably. In this case I’d suggest that if you see this plant, note and mark the location and report it to the BNT and ask their advice. They will no doubt have a general policy on invasives, or make one on a case-to-case basis.
FUN (?) FACT
The word ‘orchid’ comes from the Latin Orchis or orchideæ, and Greek ὄρχις (orkhis). This means a testicle, and is based on the shape of the root. In medieval England, orchids were called ballockwort. To this day the surgical procedure known as an orchidectomy refers to the removal of one or both testicles. Moving swiftly on…
Credits: Lucy and Mark Davies (1 – 4); Bob Peterson Wiki (5); Scott Zona Wiki (6); Mark Bennet, Ethan Fried & Laine Snow for ID; University of Florida, Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, Center for Aquatic and Invasive Plants, Plant Directory for research; Online Etymology Dictionary for Orchid definition…