Ladies of the Wild
By Risidra Mendis
Her blooming period is about to end, and soon she will go underground only to reappear in December 2021. She silently waits until the time is right for her to bloom in her true lady-like form, revealing her unique and rare flowers.
The 'she' mentioned above is best known as Naarilatha or the Dancing Girl Orchid (Habenaria crinifera).To many she may be just another native ground orchid that blooms and then fades away but it is only those of you with an artistic mind, that would spot the unique difference of this ground orchid. From a distance, she looks just like another orchid. But a closer look at this ground orchid and you will notice that she blooms not in the form of a normal flower, but in the form of a female figure. She’s white in colour, unique, captivating and yet, goes unnoticed most often.
While some say she can be spotted mainly from October to December others say, she can be seen blooming until March the following year in the wet zone. The plant is also found in Ritigala in the dry zone. However since she comes into bloom only within three to four months of the year and due to its small and delicate flower, this ground orchid most often goes unnoticed. Most of us may have come across this flower at some point in our lives, but overlooked it due to the above reasons. But once in bloom this orchid is beautiful to see and its flower is a rare and unique in its own way.
Spotted in Gannoruwa
Although the ground orchid has been spotted in many parts of Sri Lanka, it was first spotted in the Gannoruwa Proposed Forest Reserve by Scientist Pradeep Samarawickrema while compiling a report on the biodiversity in the forest in November 2020. Commenting on the discovery of the Naarilatha, Samarawickrema told Ceylon Today that there are 184 orchid species in Sri Lanka. “While 50 species are endemic, the Naarilatha genus has 11 species in Sri Lanka. Out of the 11 species four are endemic and nine are threatened. Of the nine threatened species five are 'Endangered', one 'Critically Endangered', and three are 'Vulnerable',” Samarawickrema explained.
He said the Habenaria crinifera is known as the Doll Orchid and is found in only one area in the Gannoruwa Proposed Forest Reserve and falls into the 'Vulnerable' category. “These orchids, which bloom in whole groups in late rains, are tuberous orchids with both epiphytic and terrestrial habitats. In Gannoruwa the plant is rare but in Sri Lanka you find it in many areas. “Illegal collection for the horticulture industry is the major threat to this species. The Naarilatha is also used for indigenous medicine. It is destroyed due to manmade forest fires and illegal encroachments. The Proposed Forest Reserve should be declared a Forest Reserve soon in order to protect these valuable species,” Samarawickrema said.
These ground orchids can also be seen at the Peradeniya Botanical Gardens during the blooming season. The Dancing Girl Orchid came into bloom in the garden of Samantha Gunasekara who is the former Deputy Director of Sri Lanka Customs (SLC) Biodiversity and Protection Unit (BPU), last year. Gunasekara who is an expert on orchids said this plant grows in the wet zone in between rocks and is a rain forest plant. “It grows in shady areas on mountain tops. When a bulb dies after having produced flowers a new bulb grows again after a year and blooms. A healthy plant produces about 15 to 20 flowers,” Gunasekara said.
Rare native plant
The Naarilatha plant is not that common, and can be found in sub-montane areas and in the low country wet zone. However, despite its unique feature of a female form, this orchid has become very rare and can hardly be found in many parts of the country.
Ornamental Plant Grower Indu Mallikarachchi said the Dancing Girl Orchid is listed among the rare native plants that are on the verge of getting extinct. Mallikarachchi has another type of orchid that is similar to the Sri Lankan Naarilatha but grown in Bangkok.
"This sprig of orchids looks very much like the native Dancing Girl Orchid and is white in colour. However, the flowers are slightly smaller than the Sri Lankan Naarilatha. It is very hard to tell the difference between the Bangkok Naarilatha and the Sri Lankan one, unless the two species are put together and examined closely. The Bangkok species grows in the form of a plant unlike the Sri Lankan variety that is known to grow and spread on the ground like a creeper,” Mallikarachchi said.
He added that in the foreign species a sprig shoots out from the middle of the plant and produces a set of flowers and the flowers come into bloom only twice a year, and fade away after a couple of days.
(Pix courtesy Pradeep Samarawickrema and Samantha Gunasekara)