Field of Science

Succulent Orchids

With over 1200 known species found in Asia and Australasia, Dendrobium is one of the largest currently recognised genera of orchids. As with other examples of such 'super-genera', the question of how to best handle such a monster has been fiercely debated. In 2003, Australian botanist M. Clements proposed dividing Dendrobium between numerous segregate genera, noting (among other reasons) that the genus as previously recognised was not monophyletic. However, Clements' system does not seem to have garnered widespread usage with other orchid systematists preferring to retain a broad concept of Dendrobium (excluding some of the more egregious outliers) that largely corresponds with its established usage (e.g. Schuiteman 2011). Nevertheless, many of the subdivisions promoted by Clements remain recognised as well delimited groups. One such cluster is the assemblage of species recognised as Dendrobium section Aporum.

Growth habit of Dendrobium sect. Aporum, copyright Tony Rodd.

Species of section Aporum are epiphytes found in lowland forests of south-east Asia, extending eastwards to New Guinea and the Solomon Islands. Members of this section have thin stems that are erect at first but tend to become pendulous as they lengthen. Leaves are fleshy and equitant: that is, they are folded longitudinally with what would otherwise be the two sides of the dorsal surface fused, except at the base where they overlap with opposing leaves. The stem may be more or less completely concealed by the leaf bases. Tips of the leaves end in a point. Flowers are borne singly or in clusters, arising laterally on the stem between leaf nodes or at the tip of the stem alongside a terminal scale. The flowers may be subtended by persistent chaffy bracts. They are generally small and fleshy and tend to be short-lived, wilting after just a few days.

Flowers of Dendrobium anceps, copyright Aqiao HQ.

The functional significance of the Aporum section's distinctive leaves remains uncertain. As noted by Carlsward et al. (1997), the fleshy leaves might be taken as an adaptation to water retention. However, though access to water is a consistent concern for epiphytes, the humid rainforests in which Aporum species are found hardly seem the driest of places. Conversely, the effective even distribution of stomata on both sides of leaf resulting from their equitant condition may make it easier for excess water to be released from the plant.

Dendrobium distichum, photographed by Ronny Boos.

Orchids in general are, of course, most often considered by people as ornamental plants. My impression is that the various Aporum species tend not to be among the most widely grown of species though their unusual growth habit might attract interest. This may be due to them not being the easiest of orchids to maintain; they appear to require high humidity and warm temperatures to thrive with a cooler, drier period in the non-growing season. Among the more popular species are Dendrobium anceps and D. keithii, both of which produce small greenish flowers. Those of D. anceps have been described as having a distinct "apple pie" fragrance. Of course, if you happen to be wandering through the jungles of south-east Asia, you might well discover these plants growing of their own accord.


Carlsward, B. S., W. L. Stern, W. S. Judd & T. W. Lucansky. 1997. Comparative leaf anatomy and systematics in Dendrobium, sections Aporum and Rhizobium (Orchidaceae). International Journal of Plant Sciences 158 (3): 332–342.

Clements, M. A. 2003. Molecular phylogenetic systematics in the Dendrobiinae (Orchidaceae), with emphasis on Dendrobium section Pedilonum. Telopea 10 (1): 247–298.

Schuiteman, A. 2011. Dendrobium (Orchidaceae): to split or not to split? Gardens' Bulletin Singapore 63 (1–2): 245–257.

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