A close-up of the world’s smallest orchid, at just over 2mm from petal tip to petal tip.
Image: Lou Jost.
The world’s smallest orchid was discovered recently in a mountainous nature reserve in Ecuador by American botanist Lou Jost. Dr. Jost, a former physicist, now works as a mathematical ecologist, plant biogeographer and conservation scientist, and is one of the world’s most expert orchid hunters. In the previous decade, Dr. Jost discovered 60 new species of orchids and 10 other new plant species. He discovered this diminutive plant whilst examining another species of small orchid that he was cultivating.
“I found it among the roots of another plant that I had collected, another small orchid which I took back to grow in my greenhouse to get it to flower,” Dr. Jost stated. “A few months later I saw that down among the roots was a tiny little plant that I realized was more interesting than the bigger orchid.”
“Looking at the flower is often the best way to be able to identify which species of orchid you’re got hold of — and can tell you whether you’re looking at an unknown species or not,” explained Dr. Jost (pictured at right).
The tiny flower is just 2.1 millimeters — less than half an inch — across and the petals are only one cell thick: the flower is transparent. This discovery has been tentatively classified as a new species of Platystele, a genus that is primarily comprised miniature plants.
Previously, another orchid, Platystele jungermannioides, discovered in 1912, was recognized as the tiniest species known in the world.
Dr. Jost, an expert orchid hunter, recently discovered another tiny orchid that is new to science while searching the Rio Anzu Reserve in central Ecuador.
“It was so small, it looked like a piece of dirt at first,” said Dr. Jost of that plant.
“I was going through the moss on a fallen tree branch — they’re good places for orchids to grow — when I spotted it. The flower was 3mm across.”
That previously unknown small orchid is another Platystele species.
This newest plant species was collected in the Cerro Candelaria reserve in the eastern Andes Mountains. This 2113 hectare reserve, comprising mainly Cloud Florest and Paramo (tropical alpine grasslands), was created by the EcoMinga Foundation, based in Ecuador, in partnership with the World Land Trust in Great Britain. Dr. Jost is a cofounder of the EcoMinga Foundation.
The Cerro Candelaria reserve is a rich biological transition zone that stretches between the Sangay National Park in the Andes Mountains towards the Los Llanganates National Park in the Amazon River Basin. The Cerro Candelaria region of Ecuador is known for its many tiny orchid species, and it is home to a number of rare and poorly-known orchids, including an orchid genus found no where else. Already 16 species of orchid new to science have been discovered in this reserve as well as a new species of frog and a new species of tree that will be named in honor of Sir David Attenborough. This nature reserve is also home to threatened animal and bird species such as the White-rimmed Brush-Finch and the Mountain Tapir, Spectacled Bear and Ocelot.
“It’s an exciting feeling to find a new species. People think everything has been discovered but there’s much more,” Dr. Jost pointed out.
Dr. Jost’s most dramatic discovery so far was 28 new orchid species in the genus, Teagueia — which had previously included just six species. Teagueia orchids are a spectacular plant radiation that evolved in an area that is smaller than the island of Manhattan. The radiation of these 28 closely related orchids in such a small area is celebrated as a botanical version of Darwin’s finches.
Road construction through the most remote and pristine regions in Ecuador has led to the discovery of more than 1,000 orchid species in the past century. These species that are new-to-science are eagerly pursued by orchid collectors, greenhouses and breeders as well as botanists and other scientists throughout the world.
Sources and Background Reading:
Lou Jost’s Monograph of the Genus Teagueia. Fascinating reading about all these new orchid species. Includes comments about unresolved taxonomic issues in this genus and images of each flower.
Read more about the Cerro Candelaria nature reserve.
Read more about the EcoMinga Foundation.
Read more about the World Land Trust.
Doomed To Die? Sports Illustrated Magazine.