Czech botanists discover new “bearded” vanilla species in southern Vietnam

Vanilla Atropogon, foto: Romana Rybková

Vanilla attropogon – loosely translated as “vanilla with a dark beard” is not something you are likely to put in your pudding. Out of the vast number of vanilla orchid species only three are commercially cultivated for consumption, the most common of which is the Mexican vanilla, now cultivated in Madagaskar. Other breeds are used in the perfume industry but most of the species are simply flowers growing in the tropics. Now Czech botanists have uncovered a brand new species in a largely unexplored nature reserve in southern Vietnam.

Vanilla attropogon,  photo: Romana Rybková
With dozens of flora and fauna species disappearing from our planet daily it is always exciting to find a new breed or plant species –even if it comes in the form of an unprepossessing bearded flower. An expedition from the Prague Botanical Garden mapping the diversity of flora in the Hon Ba Nature Reserve in southern Vietnam came upon a new breed of vanilla orchid close to Song Day River. Jan Ponert, who was on the team, explains how it came about.

“We went to Vietnam within an agreement between the Prague Botanical Garden and the Vietnamese authorities who signed a memorandum on cooperation in mapping the diversity of flora in the Hon Ba Nature reserve. This is a huge area which has been largely unexplored so it provides unique opportunities for botanists. So in 2012 our team was hacking its way through the rain forest when we came upon a kind of orchid that none of us recognized but because they weren’t in flower at the time we could not be sure. So we went back the next year in January and realized that this was a type of vanilla that had never been described in botanical journals –it is the sixth species of vanilla orchid indigenous to this region and one that is very different from the others.”

The new vanilla species grows to a height of 10 to 15 meters in the rain forest, flowers briefly once a year in January and has yellow-green and maroon flowers with dark, hairy lips, after which it got its name. Details of the discovery were published in Orchideen Journal late last year. The plant itself will soon be put on display in the Prague Botanical Garden, however visitors expecting to see it in bloom will be disappointed. Jan Ponert again:

Jan Ponert,  photo: Czech Television
“The orchid itself will be on display. We were lucky to get several specimens. Since orchids are a protected breed we had to get permission to bring it out of the country from the Vietnamese authorities and we were able to do so. However in their natural conditions these orchids grow to a height of tens of meters and only start flowering when the vines are quite tall. Our specimens are growing well but they are still quite small so will visitors will only be able to see this vanilla orchid in bloom on photographs.”

Small or not, the bearded vanilla is currently the pride of Prague’s Botanical Garden and is expected to be the highlight of its annual orchid exhibition in March.