Madagascar: Home to the Most Exotic, Sweetest, and Ugliest Orchids in the World

Who does not love orchids?

No one can resist the exotic beauty and scent of these flora species, known as the Queen of Flowers.

They’re found mostly in wet tropics, and there is an island in the Indian Ocean that is home to a thousand species of orchids: Madagascar.

On this tropical island, the world’s fifth-largest, more than 11,000 plant species thrive, of which 89% cannot be seen anywhere else on the planet. Likewise, out of its 1,000 orchid species, 90% are endemic to Madagascar, including the famous Darwin’s Star Orchid.

Also known as the Star of Bethlehem, the orchid was first identified by Charles Darwin in 1862 upon receiving it as a gift. Observing its long nectary, which measured more than 12 inches, Darwin told the world that its pollinator must be an insect with a foot-long proboscis.

At first, everyone laughed at Darwin for claiming that there must be an insect in Madagascar with a twelve-inch-long tongue that functions as an exclusive pollinator of the orchid. But, 40 years later, Darwin was proven right with the discovery of the Xanthopan morganii praedicta — a moth with an extraordinary long proboscis which it uses to get the nectar at the bottom of the orchid’s deep nectary.

But that is just one of the amazing things about the orchids of Madagascar. We should not forget about the island’s vanilla orchids, a prized ingredient in many cuisines. There are seven vanilla orchid variants in Madagascar, which include the Vanilla planifolia, the beans of which are the source of the spicy, sugary, floral flavor we love in many pastries, desserts, and dishes.

Then, there are also the showstopping beauties of Cymbidiella pardalina, cynorkis, Aerangis hyaloides, Eulophiella roempleriana, and many other queens of their kind, including the rare black orchid Cymbidiella falcigera.

And, fascinatingly, botanists have also discovered the ugliest orchid in the world on this island: Gastrodia agnicellus.

Photo: YouTube/The Bright Spark

“During a field trip to Madagascar in December 2017, a Gastrodia with tall, dry infructescences was first noticed in the Ranomafana area. During a more recent trip, in September 2019, the same site was re-visited and after extensive searching a few new developing fruiting inflorescences were found: cariensis,” says botanist Johan Hermans. “It was not until a layer of leaf litter was lifted that a small number of flowers were also discovered. It soon became clear that the flowers were quite different from those of the newly validated G. madagascariensis and that it was an unrecognised species.”

Botanists may consider Gastrodia agnicellus ugly due to its humble, brownish appearance and the way it hides on forest floor, but this orchid has a pleasing, musky, rosy scent.

Discover more of Madagascar and its exotic orchids!

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