CLAN Tropicals

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Phaius tankervilleae

Dr. John Atwood,

Former Director, Orchid Identification Center
Marie Selby Botanical Gardens, Sarasota FL


February and March herald the spring season with masses of the Nun's Orchid. These plants have large plicate leaves that lend a tropical appearance to any setting. They are topped by successively flowered inflorescences held on rigidly upright stalks with flowers that are usually somewhat nodding and variable in color as well as size. The lips are usually maroon turning reddish with age, although albinic forms exist that are nearly yellow. The smaller growing plants usually have darker flowers with yellowish green backs to the sepals and petals while some of the larger growing plants have white backs. Photos of Phaius tankervilleae

  At Marie Selby Botanical Gardens, Sarasota, Florida, these plants are grown in pots so that they can be moved wherever displays are needed although they are easily accommodated as terrestrials. I grow mine in a mixture of cypress mulch, top soil, and garden compost of decomposed pine needles, an acid mix to which they adapt well. After flowering, plants may lie dormant until late May. During their growing season the rapidly growing plants can hardly be overwatered, and respond well to somewhat stronger fertilizer solutions than most epiphytic orchids.

  The Nun's Orchid (Phaius tankervilleae) is especially useful as a landscape plant. They can be grown in the ground with attention paid to watering during times of drought. I prefer to grow my plants in pots so that they can be moved where needed and for elevation to nearly eye level. Clones with the white backs show up better in shaded areas, and are especially effective when illuminated by a shaft of sunlight. I move one large plant to an elevated position by the front door to impart cordiality to the street entrance. Flowers last over a month in perfection and require little attention except occasional watering and removing of spent flowers.

  The most troublesome aspects of our featured plant is the name, and there are two major issues. How is the name spelled, is there more than one species and if so how are the names applied?

   (1) How is the name spelled? At least five spellings are knowntancarvilleae, tankervillii, tankervilliae, tankervilleaewith one wild permutation as incarvillei.Generally we follow Seidenfaden (Contr. Rev. Orch. Camb., Laos Vietn. 1:93, 1975) who adopted tankervilleae. One major botanical authority W. T. Steam argues for the spelling tancarvilleae as published by L' Heritier. The argument goes like this. Although the plant was named for Lady Tankerville, her family name was derived from the northern French town of Tancarville (Orchid Research Newsletter 15:9, 1990). Therefore, there is little reason to suspect that the name was published in error unlike recent interpretations. However, custom follows Seidenfaden. This may seem like a trivial matter, but taxonomists fight like cats over orthography!

   (2) How many species are there? If one adopts but one broadly range albeit variable, species as is recently customary, the range includes Ceylon, northern India to China, Australia, New Guinea and some of the Pacific Islands. More robust plants from northern India with white backs to the tepals have been segregated as Phaius wallichii Lindl. If this is accepted, then plants of P wallichii crossed with P tankervilleae become Phaius Hybrids. The simplest solution, for lack of good data, is to accept the segregate P waIIichii, which apparently intergrades with other less robust populations, as a synonym of P. tankervilleae.

 Whatever the name, consider buying one for your collection.

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