Epiphytes live a unique lifestyle that can be quite challenging. Sure, they have a relatively sturdy place on a limb or a trunk, however, blistering sun, intense heat, and blustery winds can create conditions that would be hostile to most plant life. One of the hardest things to come by in the canopy is a steady source of nutrients. Whereas plants growing in the ground have soil, epiphytes must make do with whatever falls their way. One way plants have overcome this is to evolve a morphology that traps falling litter. There are seemingly endless litter trapping plants out there but today I want to highlight one in particular.
Meet Bulbophyllum beccarii. This strangely beautiful orchid is endemic to lowland areas of Sarawak, Borneo. What is most interesting about this species is how it grows. Instead of forming a clump of pseudobulbs on a branch or trunk, this orchid grows upwards, wrapping around the trunk like a leafy green snake. At regular intervals it produces tiny egg-shapes pseudobulbs which give rise to rather large, cup-shaped leaves. These leaves are the secret to this orchids success.
The cup-like appearance of the leaves is indeed functional. Each one acts like, well, a cup. As leaves and other debris fall from the canopy above, the leaves capture them. Over time, a community of fungi and microbes start to decompose the debris, turning it into a nutrient-rich humus. Instead of having to compete for soil nutrients like terrestrial species, this orchid makes its own soil buffet!
If that wasn't strange enough, the flowers of this species are another story entirely. Every so often when conditions are just right, the plant produces an inflorescence packed full of hundreds of tiny flowers. The flowers dangle down below the leaves and emit an odor that has been compared to that of rotting fish. Certainly disdainful to our sensibilities but it is not us this plant is trying to attract. Carrion flies are the main pollinators of this species and the scent coupled with their carrion-like crimson color attracts them in swarms.
This is all a ruse, of course. The flies are looking for food and a place to lay their eggs. Instead, they end up visiting a flower with no rewards whatsoever. Regardless, some of these flies will end up picking up and dropping off pollinia, thus helping this orchid achieve sexual reproduction.
Epiphyte diversity is incredible and makes up a sizable chunk of overall biodiversity in tropical forests. The myriad ways that epiphytic plants have adapted to life in the canopy is staggering. Bulbophyllum beccarii is but one player in this fascinating niche.
Ch'ien C. Lee - http://www.wildborneo.com.my/
Peter AJ Chong - bit.ly/1XLgFE6