Local Butterfly Orchids Have Adapted to Dry Conditions

Butterfly Orchids sometimes share spaces with cactuses. (Source photo by Gail Karlsson)

I usually see the small flowers of these native orchids (Psychilis macconnelliae) sticking up on long stalks on the dry southern hillsides of St. John. They are special because they only grow in the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico.

On St. Croix and Anegada, they grow down low, in the sand dunes, but in other areas they are at higher elevations. They may also look a bit different from one island to another.

The local name Butterfly Orchid seems to refer to their bright, purple-toned petals, which resemble a pair of delicate little wings. Orchids often produce flowers that look like the insects they hope to attract as pollinators but, unfortunately, I haven’t seen any butterflies on St. John looking like that.

Butterfly Orchid petals are partially split in the middle, like wings maybe. (Source photo by Gail Karlsson)

The official U.S. Department of Agriculture name is Island Peacock Orchid, though I don’t see any resemblance to peacocks either.

Like many other orchids, these are ‘epiphytes’, which means they don’t grow in soil but on other plants. Their roots are often attached to small trees or bushes for support. They get nutrients from the air and rainwater, and from dead leaves and debris on the trees. They also interact with any fungi or insects on the bark of their host tree. However, they are not parasites and don’t break through the bark or otherwise harm the trees.

Orchids wrap their roots around the trees that support them. (Source photo by Gail Karlsson)

Some of the Butterfly Orchids will also attach to rocks, and when they do that, they are called ‘lithophytes’.

Butterfly Orchids can grow on rocks as well as trees. (Source photo by Gail Karlsson)

These orchids may look frail, perched on top of their long thin stalks, but they are actually quite hardy. They are well adapted to hot weather and drought, with fleshy, tuberous roots that can hold enough water and nutrients to allow them to keep going during dry periods. They can bloom over and over again for many years.

The Butterfly Orchids on St. John even managed to survive and recover fairly well from the 2017 hurricanes.

Butterfly Orchid seed pods hang high up in the wind for easy dispersal. (Source photo by Gail Karlsson)

The seed pods from orchid plants can contain millions of very tiny seeds, which are released into the wind when the pod breaks open. An orchid seed is so small because it doesn’t have any nutrients surrounding it to help it grow. The seed has to happen to fall onto the right type of fungus that will help it germinate, and onto a tree or rock which also has appropriate grooves to cradle the seed and catch water, and which offers just the right amount of shade and light, and air circulation.

Very few of the seeds actually grow into plants, but apparently this strategy of mass production of seeds sent out to seek the right combination of conditions has evolved to work successfully for many orchids.

So I was sorry to read that in 2016 Butterfly Orchids were listed as ‘Near Threatened’ by the scientists working for the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. This listing was based on evidence that the orchids have been losing important areas of habitat, mostly due to construction of roads and residential houses, and expanded recreational areas.

Despite the remarkable adaptations that allow them to survive the hot, dry weather in these islands, as well as periodic devastating hurricanes, these special orchids may well be in existential danger because of human land clearing activities. In addition, on St. John they are also molested by introduced grazers, including cliff-climbing feral goats, as well as white-tailed deer.

I am hoping that the Butterfly Orchids can be properly recognized and valued, and protected or relocated if necessary, so that they are not listed as ‘Threatened’ when the next IUCN review takes place.

Gail Karlsson is an environmental lawyer, writer and photographer. She is the author of two books about the Virgin Islands – The Wild Life in an Island House and the guidebook Learning About Trees and Plants – A Project of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of St. John. She has also recently published A Birds’ Guide to The Battery and New York Harbor. Follow her on Instagram @gailkarlsson and at gvkarlsson.blogspot.com.