Wild Banana Orchid

The Wild Banana Orchid is an endemic species of orchid - that is, it is found only in the Cayman Islands.

The Cayman Islands boast a number of spectacular native flowers, including 26 different varieties of orchids. Probably the best known and certainly one of the most unique and easily identifiable is the National Flower of the Cayman Islands, the Wild Banana Orchid (Myrmecophila thomsoniana).

The Wild Banana Orchid is an endemic species of orchid - that is, it is found only in the Cayman Islands. It comes in two varieties: Myrmecophila thomsoniana var. thomsoniana which originated on Grand Cayman, and Myrmecophila thomsoniana var. minor which came from Cayman Brac and Little Cayman.

Anyone walking through areas of woodland after the spring rains would be almost sure to come across several examples of this lovely bloom. Indeed, it has proved popular with many gardeners on the island too, and its distinctive shape can often be seen adorning trees near houses.

Both varieties have scented flowers with purple lips. The petals are predominantly white on the Grand Cayman variety while the Sister Islands' variety has slightly smaller flowers, with pale yellow petals.

Before international trade in wild orchids became regulated, Wild Banana Orchids were occasionally exported from Cayman Brac, and many specimens were also brought to Grand Cayman. As a result, some hybridization has occurred and some variation in flower colour can now be seen in Grand Cayman, particularly in garden plants.

The Wild Banana Orchid is an epiphyte, which means that it grows on another plant, but does not harm it in the way a parasitic plant would. Its tiny seeds are dispersed by air currents. They settle and germinate on a host plant, usually a tree with rough bark such as a Whitewood, Mahogany or Logwood. The growing orchid clings to its host's bark by its roots, which absorb water and nutrients from the rain when it runs down the branches and trunk of the supporting tree.

Wild Banana Orchids are particularly abundant in humid conditions, such as in woodlands downwind of ponds and wetlands. As the plant grows, its distinctive shape can be seen developing. Clusters of long, finger-like pseudobulbs group together at the base of the plant, resembling bunches of bananas. Long graceful flower spikes appear around April and May each year, though occasionally flowers can also be seen at other times of the year. The orchid does need the drier period of winter to rest between flowering seasons however, if the level of flowering is to be maintained. During this time the bulbs dry out and become compressed. Come the rainy season, the pseudobulbs plump up and the flowering begins again.

Plentiful rain ensures good conditions for seed germination. One orchid can release as many as one million seeds! They are dispersed at random, and very few will by chance end up in a suitable place to grow.

Many orchids have very specialised requirements for successful growth and reproduction. Close relatives of the Wild Banana Orchid, which are found in Central and South America, harbour nests of stinging ants in their hollow pseudobulbs. The ants protect the orchid from plant-eating creatures of every kind, in return for which the orchid provides a dry and secure home. The plant also seasonally exudes sweet nectar from a gland on the flower spike, which the ants eat.

Strangely, the Cayman Islands' Wild Banana Orchids have the same hollow pseudobulbs and nectar glands, but the matching ant species are nowhere to be found. Native Anole lizards climb the flower spikes and lick the nectar glands instead.

Caymanian folklore tells us that the resourceful early settlers found the pseudobulbs occasionally useful as temporary pipe bowls (hollow dried almond twigs made the stems). A perfect solution if the smoker had remembered the tobacco but forgotten the pipe!

The Wild Banana Orchid is not endangered, but accelerating deforestation for real estate development has meant the loss of many host trees and their orchids. Efforts are being made to make landowners aware of this loss of habitat - not just for the Wild Banana Orchid, but for many species of Cayman's wildlife. Property developers are encouraged to look at established native trees on a site, and retain as many as possible for incorporation into their landscaping schemes.

There is also some concern that cross-pollination with introduced species may, in time, represent a threat. Fortunately, the Cayman Islands has an active group of orchid enthusiasts who are monitoring this situation very closely.

If you would like to see the Wild Banana Orchid in its native habitat, they are carefully protected and easily seen in the Queen Elizabeth II Botanic Park, along the Mastic Trail and on the nature trail in the Brac Parrot Reserve.

Last Updated: 26 Jun 2012