Dr. Richard Evans Schultes (1915-2001) was travelling in Colombia with his Italian friend Nazzareno Posarino up the Rio Karaparaná in May of 1942. This is when Schultes contracted his first of many cases of malaria. At this time of year, both riverbanks were flooded from the torrential rains of the rainy season. The travelers were forced to make camp on the side of the river to rest, hanging their hammocks over the inundated ground. Here they stayed for three days as Schultes battled the fevers of the mosquito-borne illness. Finally, the fevers broke early on May 27 and Dr. Schultes, still weak, made his way to the river’s edge to bathe. As he reached the water, he staggered slightly and fell against the riverbank where he suddenly noticed a single brilliantly blue orchid growing on the trunk of a tree. This was no other than the legendary blue orchid (Acacallis cyanea Lindl.) — a prize Schultes had been searching for to send to Prof. Oakes Ames back at the Botanical Museum of Harvard University (2). Afterwards, Dr. Schultes wrote in an article “Never could a doctor have prescribed a more effective tonic! … I was happy and could almost have believed that destiny had led me in these lowest of days to that one bright jewel of the jungle” (1). This collection (R. E. Schultes 3813) is now preserved in the Orchid Herbarium of Oakes Ames at Harvard University.
It was in Venezuela's state of Amazonas ca. 1800 that this spectacular and unique orchid was collected first by the esteemed naturalist team of Alexander von Humboldt and Aimé Bonpland. Gathered along the upper Orinoco River at “La Esmeralda”, curiously, their collection of this orchid was never described. It was fifty years later in 1851 that a humble English botanist from Yorkshire named Richard Spruce made another collection of this “almost perfectly blue” orchid from trees along the Rio Negro in Brazil. Spruce collected the same orchid a second time in 1853. Spruce’s first collection was later described by John Lindley in 1853 under the name Acacallis cyanea, the generic name after the Greek nymph Acacallis, one of Apollo’s lovers (2, 3). Spruce’s 1851 specimen rests at the herbarium of Kew Gardens in London, England and serves as the type of the species.
In 1896, the generic name of Acacallis was lumped into a sister genus, Aganisia Lindl., by H. G. Reichenbach f., a prominent orchidologist. The plant has been treated under this name until very recently. Upon the writing of this note, Dr. Gustavo A. Romero-González (AMES) discussed the generic name of Aganisia vs. Acacallis with Prof. Franco Pupulin of the Lankester Botanical Garden, in the vicinity of Cartago, Costa Rica. After some discussion they concluded that because there is phylogenetic support for Acacallis as a genus, and the many conspicuous floral features that distinguish it from Aganisia, we can now refer to Schultes’ “jewel of the jungle” by its original name.
Following the collections by Spruce, over the course of nearly a century, A. cyanea was collected by only a handful of other collectors before it was collected by José Cuatrecasas in 1939 and subsequently by Schultes in 1942. Edward Sprague Rand Jr. collected it in the Amazon River Basin in 1885, sending his specimen to Jean J. Linden which became the basis for describing Aganisia tricolor N. E. Br., now treated as a synonym under A. cyanea. Due to its striking features, this orchid became a favorite of major horticulture firms who sent collectors to acquire vast numbers of the plant. Around the same time as Rand (ca. 1886), it was collected in Venezuela by Eric Bungeroth, who reportedly sent a number of live plants, under the name Aganisia caerulea Rchb. f., also to Linden’s horticultural establishment in Belgium. Theodore Koch-Grünberg collected the plant in 1904 under the name Kochiophyton negrense Schltr. ex Cogn. The type was later destroyed in Berlin during World War II. Few collections, other than these mentioned, are known prior to 1942.
What makes this plant even more interesting is its natural history. The blue orchid is found only in the northwestern Amazonian Valley of Colombia and Brazil and neighboring parts of Venezuela along the headwaters of the Orinoco River, specifically in forests drained by slow moving, blackwater rivers. Here, the orchid is found growing as an epiphyte (growing on trees) along the rivers. These particular rivers flood seasonally during the rainy season and will rise as high as 10 meters (33 feet). During this time A. cyanea becomes completely submerged. Remarkably, it can remain underwater with almost no oxygen for some time, waiting for the water levels to drop. When they do, this orchid jumps into action. Almost immediately, it will produce new vegetative growth. Shortly after, the orchid will produce the beautiful blooms that have captivated naturalists and orchidologists for more than two centuries and will surely continue to do so for many more.
Acacallis Cyanea Lindl., photographed by G. A. Romero-González along the
Casiquiare Canal, Venezuela, on September 6, 2007.
- Schultes, R. E. 1961. Aganisia cyanea - Jewel of the Jungle. American Orchid Society Bulletin. 30(7): 558-562.
- Davis, W. 1996. The Blue Orchid, In One River (pp. 372-410). New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.
- Schultes, R. E. 1958. Orchidaceae Neotropicales V. Generis Aganisiae Synopsis. Lloydia. 21(2): 88-99.
Many thanks to Curatorial Assistant Allen Milby for this month's specimen spotlight!
A Word of Thanks from Allen: Personal communications with Dr. Gustavo A. Romero-González provided a great deal of the information that helped to piece together the convoluted collection history of this orchid. He was also able to provide some insight into the natural history of the plant and shed light on its tricky nomenclatural changes over the years. A big thanks is owed to him for his generous sharing of knowledge and his kind encouragement during the process of putting this short article together.