Dendrobium fytchianum Bateman ex Rchb.f.

In 1863, Captain Grant, author of the book “Orchids of Burma”, was on orchid safari for a very elegant little Dendrobium that had attracted his attention by being worn in the hair of the Burmese girls at Moulmein. Captain Grant was accompanied by Colonel Fytche, the master planner of the city of Rangoon. They had been searching for the plant for the better part of the day along the Salween River, which enters the sea at Moulmein. Though the Colonel was no orchid fan, and probably was after game and fowl, he spied an orchid on an overhanging branch of a tree. It proved to be the desired plant. The name records the circumstances.

Closeup photo of Dendrobium fytchianum showing the yellow bristles on the lip. The side lobes of the lip can vary in color as can the amount of hairs. But always set against pristine white petals and sepals.

Dendrobium fytchianum is still the craze of the Burmese girls at Moulmein today, and it commands the best price among the many native orchids. Sadly, the love of orchid flowers in Burma has not been accompanied by a love of orchid culture. The cause of this neglect is due to the extremely low prices for which orchids in flower and bud are sold, and people place no value on the plant once it has flowered. As a result, a century of indiscriminate extraction has almost depleted the forest of this dainty plant.

The upright stems, 1/8” – ¼” in diameter, are inclined to slant off the perpendicular at odd angles, as if their bases were weak. The older stems are reddish-brown, marked with a high gloss. The new growths on which the spikes appear both terminally and laterally are covered with a sheath. Internodes are 1” – 1-1/2”. The stems are 9” – 12”, but strong plants with eighteen inch stems are not uncom- mon. The stems slowly elongate into 3” – 4” terminal racemes, but many stems also have one or two additional lateral racemes. The racemes have about ten flowers ¾” – 1” in diameter, on the shorter stems, and about fifteen on the stronger and longer ones.

The lanceolate sepals and roundish obovate petals are clear white. The three-lobed lip consists of two small lateral incurved lobes that are deep rose in color. The obcordate apiculate middle lobe is also pure white and as large as the petals. The base of the midlobe has bristle-like yellow hairs that give a striking yellow blotch contrasting with the deep rose of the lateral lobes, thus giving the flower its daintiness and distinction.

The Gardeners’ Chronicle (1887, p. 209) records Major General E.S. Berkerley as introducing a variety rosea in 1886. My friends and I have not seen or heard of this plant so far. I do have two variants with strong rose venation on the petals, however.

These plants have been found only in the Moulmein region, which is characterized by a five-month rainy season, from mid-May to mid-October, when exceptionally high humidities of 85% and mean temperatures of 80 degrees F. result. It is in this period that light intensities are lowest due to the clouds. The plants produce all their new growth within this five month period, and immediately after the rainy season is over the lanceolate leaves turn yellow and are shed. Buds initiate at once and the plants are in bloom by the second week of November, the flowers lasting about 20 days.

Another example of this beautiful Dendrobium.

Of the warm-loving, low elevation, Indo-Burmese dendrobiums having horticultural value, this appears to be the only plant that flowers in November. Most warm-growing Indo-Burmese dendrobiums flower in summer only after a period of rest and lowered humidity. I have still not been able to place this plant into any particular section of the genus Dendrobium, and would be interested to hear from anyone on this score. I am awaiting to see if a most unprobable cross with Den. phalaenopsis will take, as the large lip of the Den. fytchianum would be an enhancement to the form of the present nearly lipless Den. phalaenopsis hybrids.

At Rangoon, where the rainfall is only 100 inches, as compared to Moulmein’s 180, I have grown Den. fytchianum successfully in our uncovered lath house, together with cattleyas. Taking a hint from the heavy rainfall at Moulmein (1” per day), we have potted them in small clay pots, using only coconut fiber as compost. Results have been exceptionally good. The plants have been fed with the same fertilizer and schedule as the cattleyas.

As far as I am aware, no photograph of this flower has been previously published. From observation, one will notice that unlike most orchids, this flower is prone to have the lip pointing upward, or at a half turn. Some lips do turn downward, but I have not noted any spray in whick all the lips were in the ordinary position.

U San Hla, Rangoon, Burma reprinted from the American Orchid Society Bulletin, VOl.34,#5, May, 1965

Many thanks to Nik Fahmi for use of his photos of this rare orchid.