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Grammatophyllum speciosum Blume
by Adeline Hii

Newsletter

Grammatophyllum speciosum Blume

by Adeline Hii

Grammatophyllum speciosum, commonly known as tiger orchid, is probably the largest orchid in South-East Asia. In Greek, ‘grammatus’ means letter and ‘phyllum’ means leaf. Probably ‘Grammatophyllum’ refers to the dark and conspicuous markings on the sepals and petals, perhaps thought to resemble writing. The Latin epithet ‘speciosum’ means showy or splendid. Its other English names include Queen of orchids, giant orchid, and sugar cane orchid. The Malay names for G. speciosum are Bunga puteri (princess’s flower), Bunga bidadari (fairy’s flower), and Ekur gajah (elephant’s tail) (Burkill, 1966)

The stems of tiger orchids resemble sugar cane but with many ridges. They can grow up to 3 metres long, bearing many leaves of up to 75 cm in length. The stems are erect when young but become pendulous when they grow longer and heavier. Tiger orchids have two forms of roots: the common fleshy, thick roots for anchorage and the dry, thin and spiny roots that grow upwards and outwards. The spiny roots help the orchids to trap leaf litter as a source of nutrients that is very important for epiphytes (plants that grow on tree trunks or branches, without taking food from the host) (Lamb, 2011). In a single tiger orchid plant, there are probably more than ten long stems. The flowering stalks arise from the base of the stems. They can grow to more than 2 m long with 80 to 100 flowers on one stalk. The whole plant weighs about 2 tonnes and can bear up to 7000 flowers (Ridley, 1924).

Its flowers, like its Latin name, are indeed beautiful, showy and splendid. The flowers are dimorphic. The normal flowers can grow up to 10 cm wide; the sepals and petals are bright yellow with maroon-brown blotches that somehow resemble letter markings, whence the common name. The abnormal flowers have two sepals (two lower sepals are fused), two petals and no lip, and the column is smaller and sterile. They only appear at the lower part of the flowering stalk. According to Ridley (1924), there are two varieties of this orchid: the common one has larger spots on the sepals and petals, while the other has numerous, smaller spots. Tiger orchids usually bloom around July to August or December to January. The plants flower rather infrequently (O’Byrne, 2001); they may flower once a year, but sometimes once every two or four years or even more infrequently (Orchid review, 1905). The flowering period can last for up to two or three months (Anon., 1905). The tiger orchid produces green seed pods that are as big as a starfruit, about 15 cm long and 5 cm wide. It is probably the biggest fruit in the orchid family, but the seeds are tiny as in other orchids (Lamb, 2011).

This orchid is widespread in South-East Asia, ranging from Thailand, Peninsular Malaysia through Sumatra, Java, and Borneo, Philippines to the Solomon Islands. They usually grow in the lowlands, on big trees overhanging rivers where they get enough space, moisture and sunlight. They also occur in montane and occasionally, limestone forest (Seidenfaden & Wood, 1992). The flowers are probably pollinated by the giant bee, Apis dorsata (Ong et. al., 2011).

Like in the wild, the plants need plenty of sunlight, and good drainage. The plants can be grown on a big tree, or in a big container. Since they will grow larger and heavier, a suitable permanent place should be chosen wisely. The base of the plants must be raised well above the ground by piling up stones, bricks or rubble. Then the base can be covered by a thin layer of compost. After the plants are well established, they require little attention. Organic fertilisers may be applied once in six months (Holttum, 1964).

References

  1. Burkill, I.H.. (1966). A Dictionary of the Economic Products of the Malay Peninsula (I-Z). Ministry of Agriculture and Co-operatives, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
  2. Holttum, R.E. (1964). Orchids of Malaya Third Edition. Government Printing Office, Singapore. pp. 759.
  3. O'Byrne, P. (2001). A to Z of South East Asian Orchid Species. Orchid Society of South East Asia, Singapore. pp. 168.
  4. Ong, P.T., O'Byrne, P., Yong, W.S.Y. & Saw, L.G. (2011). Wild Orchids of Peninsular Malaysia. Forest Research Institute Malaysia (FRIM), Ministry of Natural Resources and Environment Malaysia, Malaysia. pp. 196.
  5. Ridley, H.N. (1924). The Flora of the Malay Peninsula: Monocotyledon, Volume 4. Lovell Reeve & Co., Ltd., London, England. pp. 383.
  6. Seidenfaden, G. & Wood, J.J. (1992). The Orchids of Peninsular Malaysia and Singapore. A Revision of R.E. Holttum: Orchids of Malaya. The Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew & Botanic Garden, Singapore. pp. 779.
  7. The Orchid Review, Vol. 13 (December 1905). Orchid Review Limited, England.
  8. Wood, J.J.. Malesian Orchid Journal, Volume 8, p. 124, 2011
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