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Critical Focus | Aliens of the Botanical World


2023, Volume 70:3, pp. 127 – 138


Brian J. Ford

Orchids have long been important to microscopists. The cell nucleus was first identified in orchids, and some species are so minute they require a microscope to be clearly observed.

We were hiking up the tallest mountain in Borneo when I saw it. Nestling on a rain-wet branch was the tiny but unmistakable flower of the Pinhead Orchid, Podochilus tenuis. The local botanists knew it well; it had been studied since its discovery in 1833 and measured some 2 mm (8/100 in.) across — the smallest known orchid in the world. Others have since made similar claims. When Platystele jungermannioides was recently discovered in Ecuador, it was no smaller, though was immediately claimed as the record holder. Then Campylocentrum insulare was spotted in Brazil during 2015, looking like a tiny fungus and recognizable as an orchid only under the microscope. In Australia you will find _Bulbophyllum minutissimum) less than 1.5 mm (6/100 in.) — and all these diminutive flowers have petals that are only one cell thick. These are the smallest land plants anywhere on earth.

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