Orchids are one of the most fascinating and vibrant flowers in the world. Their unique shape, color, and fragrance are alluring to our eyes. Besides the beauty they hold, the orchid family consists of more than 20,000 diverse species. A handful of rarest orchid species usually appear in restricted habitat areas. But many of them are overly harvested with the sole intention of making economic benefits. That caused ravage to a wide population of orchids, including the rarely found ones.
So let’s be acquainted with the top 10 rarest orchid species, enlisted as critically endangered as per the IUCN Red List, and be aware of the need to protect them at all costs.
Popularly known as Gold of Kinabalu or Rothschild’s Slipper Orchid. With a very rare and restricted distribution, the orchid species usually grows in the rainforests of Mount Kinabalu in Borneo. The tall inflorescences with 5 to 6 flowers strongly resemble a flock of birds flying over the sky.
A reddish-brown colored pouch-like structure, together with the petals, grows almost horizontally, giving a unique appearance to the flower. The dorsal and ventral sepals have deep brown stripes. Being a terrestrial herb, they commonly occur on steep slopes or cliffs at an elevation of around 600 to 1200 m from the sea level in Borneo, Malaysia.
The plant attains 2-3 ft when they fully mature. Small brown spots on the light green petals that seem to be aphids have a significant role in pollination. When parasitic flies get attracted to the petals, they tap on the flower’s stigma, thereby releasing the pollens. But as an ornamental plant, it is extensively collected for commercial purposes.
Being an extremely rare species, they are endemic to the evergreen forests of the central and northern parts of Madeira, Portugal. The species population recorded less than 50 flowers in their native habitat. But the sub-populations and isolated variants show fluctuations in the total number of individuals.
A shiny hairless green stem carries densely packed inflorescence with atmost 60 spotless white flowers. They prefer the mid-shade area to complete their growth cycle. And flowering takes around 10 to 15 years. Pale green markings characterize the green-colored asymmetric and elliptical leaves. Slight sticky hairs cover the entire plant except for the flowers.
They grow in special habitats like cliffs and ravines near the trade-wind cloud forest zone. Efficient, conservative measures have been taken to protect the species from landslides, the collapse of terrain, and invasion by other species.
The recently discovered epiphytic orchid belongs to Phalaenopsis class. They are endemic to the sub-tropical evergreen forests of ziro valley in Arunachal Pradesh, India. Usually appears in light pink, the orchid species have non-deciduous leaves, short and convex-shaped mid-lobes, and yellowish green spur.
Overall species distribution in the natural habitat is less than 50. The floral morphology is similar to the honghenensis species from China but can be differentiated by the latter’s light green to brown color. As mostly seen on tree trunks, they face a high threat of habitat loss due to deforestation.
Since broadly collected for ornamental and academic objectives, The Government of India has now banned the export of wild orchid species as part of any commercial motives. Necessary actions have also been taken at the village level to protect it from extinction.
Popular among the orchid family as “byron bay donkey orchid” is endemic to Byron Bay in northeastern New South Wales, Australia. The terrestrial orchid grows singly or in groups from a tuber that usually appears in late winter. Each stem that grows to 35 cm in height can bear up to seven flowers. Lemon or golden yellow colored flowers with brown markings resemble a donkey’s face. Two lateral petals are erect like ears, and two narrow petals point downwards. The central petal is broad and lobed like a tongue.
The bright yellow color of the flower attracts native bees, which helps in their pollination. On the completion of flowering, the adult plant enters into an inactive state. They usually appear on grassy heathlands of the north coast of New South Wales.
The loss or modification of their native habitat is the main threat to the species population. Since the area of habitat distribution is minimal, weed invasion, habitat fragmentation, pollution, and grazing may also lead to the species near extinction.
Commonly called “western underground orchid”, the flowering plant is native to Western Australia. The entire plant life cycle, including flowering, is at or below the soil surface. Pink to deep red colored, inwardly facing small flowers bloom between May and July.
The flowers, together with the large, cream-colored bracts, form a tulip-like head. Flower produces berry-like fleshy fruits with almost 150 seeds after pollination. Unlike other species of the orchid family, they produce indehiscent fruit. As they mature, the flower head cracks and opens the soil surface, leaving a small opening through which the pollinators can enter.
The plant usually grows under leaf and bark litter in thickets of Melaleuca scalena species. As they are subterranean during their entire life cycle, they form a holomycotrophic association with the mycorrhizal fungi to acquire energy and nutrients. The species has given the name gardneri to honor Charles Gardner, a famous botanist from Western Australia. But now, they are under the threat of drought, habitat loss, and rising soil salinity.
It is also known as “copper-beard orchid”. Endemic to South Australia, their distribution belongs to a small area within the Aldinga Scrub Conservation Park. They have a single fleshy leaf that grows to a height of 20 cm. A dull green to purple stem bears blooms having large sterile bracts. Flowers up to 15 on the stem appear in pale green with red stripes.
Petals with heavy red streaks are wide around the column, having two sham “eyes” without a joining ridge in between. A coppery tint and shiny purple plate at the base, with purple hairs at the mid, form the labellum. The triangular lateral sepals beside the labellum gradually become pink to green in color.
But now, the species distribution is struggling to survive from habitat deterioration due to extensive weed invasion, grazing, and other human disturbances. As the estimated number of individual species is considerably low, we must take suitable measures for their conservation.
An epiphytic orchid that occurs only on the island of Montserrat in the Caribbean Sea. Beautiful, yellow-colored small flowers form clustered inflorescences on an elongated swollen stem that holds water so the species can survive during the dry season.
They commonly grow on the old and dead trees of the native habitat, particularly mango trees. Since they are native to the volcanic island’s tropical dry and wet forests, they have to experience threats like habitat loss due to volcanic eruptions, habit fragmentation, and human-induced activities.
The Montserrat National Trust has initiated a micro-propagational unit as part of its project to preserve the endemic species of Montserrat Island. The unit is now fully functional and accessible to the public to motivate them to restore the Montserrat orchid population. Training for micro-propagation and cross-breeding is now available to the public under this unit.
Popularly known as “Wyong sun orchid”, is native to a small area in New South Wales. An erect, fleshy 10-40 cm long leaf forms a sheath at the base of the flowering stem. The dark purple-colored flowering stem, with 20-60 cm height, usually emerges in September.
Flowers with slender stalks that appear in pale to dark blue emit a pleasant fragrance. These self-pollinating flowers open only during warm or sunny weather conditions. The orchid species has high demand among orchid enthusiasts and botanists for herbarium collections.
They usually grow in grasslands having well-drained clay or shale-derived soils. Weed invasion, habitat loss, and grazing are the primary threats to the species. Also, the overcollection of orchid species as herbarium specimens by botanists and for personal collection by gardeners causes a potential deterioration in the plant population.
A rarely observed terrestrial orchid species native to the eastern Himalayas to Assam reports a restricted distribution in a small area in India. They commonly occur on the edges of river banks, grassy slopes, and limestone cliffs.
Nearly dull green-colored leaves with strap shapes and a medium-sized flower with a broad white sepal that appears in purple and the petals ruffled at the margins contribute a unique floral morphology. As an ornamental plant, it is extensively collected for domestic, horticulture, and international trade.
With less than 50 estimated matured individuals existing, the species is now on the verge of near extinction. The orchid species is called “lost orchids,” as they rarely occur in their native habitat. Habitat degradation, deforestation, human interventions, and grazing are the major threats to their decline in population.
The orchid species is known as “Lemon spider orchid”. They are indigenous to the south-west of Western Australia and usually grow on mixed woodland with dense herbs and grasses having sandy loam or sandy clay soil type. An underground tuber with a single hairy leaf bears up to 3 lemon yellow-colored flowers together, representing the floral morphology.
The flowering period is from September to mid-October. But a considerable decline in rainfall and a comparatively late flowering period may cause a decrease in the rate of reproduction. The presence of mycorrhizal fungi has a significant role in their vegetative growth.
A decline in habitat distribution, rising salinity, and weed invasion are the primary threats to the species. The number of mature individuals has decreased due to the severe fragmentation of the species’ population and poor habitat quality. If the reduction in the habitat distribution continues at this rate, the observed plants will become extinct soon.