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July 12, 2023

Ghost Bat Orchid

ghost bat orchid

Ghost bat orchid is an outstanding addition to Halloween gardens, or as an interesting houseplant indoors. Its bracts reminiscent of bat wings and long modified leaves resembling faux whiskers make this exotic plant both terrifying and delightful!

Plants grown in containers are generally easy to care for, although sufficient humidity levels must exist in order for them to flourish. Soil should remain moist without becoming waterlogged; and annual repotting should take place.

Characteristics

The ghost bat orchid (Dendrophylax lindenii) is an endangered and rare species found only in South Florida and Cuba, distinguished by wide flowers with bat-wing bracts and seed pods with bat faces that look almost similar.

Owing to its widespread and celebrity status in popular culture, relatively little is known about the natural history and pollination ecology of this charismatic plant, especially orchids. Orchids often face complex arms races between pollinators and flowers that produce pollen for pollination resulting in both parties adapting; flowers with long corollas may even be pollinated by specific moth species specialized for pollination9.

Human development has led to habitat loss and hydrologic changes that have contributed to a decrease in ghost orchid populations throughout South Florida, prompting its protection on public land such as Big Cypress National Preserve. Poaching remains a threat; by protecting ghost orchids on public lands such as Big Cypress National Preserve, their presence will remain part of South Florida's unique mosaic of ecosystems for years to come.

Habitat

In South Florida, ghost bat orchids typically thrive as leafless vines that cling to deep swamps of cypress and pond apple trees. In addition to these environments, other forms of forest habitats including pine flatwoods and citrus groves may support its presence.

Its long, pointed lips and sepals evoke those of a bat, making this species an exquisite example of convergent evolution, given its similarity to plants with large sepals and petals such as the black-eyed pea plant or Aristolochia salvadorensis (bumblebee orchid).

Flowers' fragrant nectar attracts pollinators insects like moths. When one flies by, its sepals open as the moth passes and its proboscis can access nectar within its blooms to extract nectar for nectar extraction.

The ghost bat orchid is considered endangered due to hydrologic changes, habitat destruction, and overcollecting. To thrive in its natural environment, this rare plant needs high humidity, mild temperatures and dappled shade. When in its native environment it forms a symbiotic relationship with certain fungi, exchanging sugar for nutrients; when that relationship dies out the ghost orchid wilts and dies.

Pollination

Dendrophlax lindenii has attracted considerable media coverage due to its status as an endangered species and the dramatic account of its theft and recovery outlined in The Orchid Thief book and film. Unfortunately, its elusive nature has made studying its natural history challenging; particularly pollination. Studies to date have been limited by ghost bat calls which make their presence known while accessing plants may be difficult due to political tension between the United States and Cuba or because nocturnal emission of volatile compounds occurs at irregular times and high-end camera technology being employed during research efforts.

Charles Darwin famously discussed the coevolutionary relationship between orchids and their pollinating insects in The Origin of Species. Since then, researchers have discovered countless amazing relationships between orchids and their pollinators insects resulting in highly specific morphologies on both sides.

Before recently, there was widespread belief among orchid enthusiasts that long-spurred orchids like D. lindenii required lengthy corollas in order to prevent pollinia loss due to generalist pollinators who don't visit multiple flowers of the same plant (and thus cancel out energy invested in flower production). Timestamped camera trap data shows otherwise: D. lindenii can easily be pollinated by Lepidoptera with much shorter proboscis length than C. antaeus which had long been suspected as pollinator of D. lindenii.

Diseases

As is often the case with rare orchids, the ghost bat flower may be susceptible to diseases and issues caused by its environment as well as by itself. These diseases and issues could include its own unique challenges such as root rot.

As with other orchids, this variety can become root-bound when kept in containers; to address this problem in captivity, regular repotting is recommended to avoid root-bounding issues. Furthermore, like many greenhouse plants, the flower also experiences fungal infections and dehydration issues.

This rare and exotic orchid lives as an epiphyte - meaning that it grows on top of another organism - in its native habitat, using trees (pop ash and pond apple) for support, photosynthesizing, and receiving nutrients. As an amazing example of convergence evolution, its development bears striking resemblance to Indian-pipe which evolved alongside an insect feeding on it (Xylo morganii praedicta has an extraordinary proboscis length exceeding 16 cm!).

Care

Though rare, the ghost bat orchid (Tacca chantrieri) makes for an exciting addition to a garden or houseplant collection. This leafless plant photosynthesizes using its roots which help it cling to tree trunks such as pop ash and pond apple trees for support.

These plants require conditions similar to their natural habitat, including bright yet indirect sunlight and high humidity levels. Soil should be well-draining with regular misting; pH levels between 6.5 and 7.0 are ideal, and feeding it biweekly with liquid orchid fertilizer or slow release organic fertilizer is advised.

This plant doesn't require much pruning other than to remove withered and dead leaves, and rarely attracts pests such as aphids and snails.

If you want to propagate a bat flower, there are two methods available for doing so: division by rhizomes or harvest from seed. Germination could take anywhere between 18 months and two years when collected as seeds; for open capsules it is best to allow them to mature naturally before opening them by splitting open naturally once mature and separated after blooming; otherwise they may also be separated in spring after blooming has ended. USDA hardiness zone 4; greenhouse usually required.