Know your islands
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 1million seeds!
They are dispersed at random, and very few will by chance end up in a suitable place to grow. The plant also seasonally exudes sweet nectar from a gland on the flower spike, which the native Anole lizards like to lick!
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. Photographs by Frank Roulstone.
Grow Cayman Plants and encourage Cayman Wildlife! For more information, to share your knowledge or if you would like to get involved with the many activities in the National Trust’s Know Your Islands Program, please visit www.nationaltrust.org.ky or call 949-0121. The weekly column from the National Trust is submitted by Marnie Laing, Education Programs Manager at the Trust.
Last week’s answer: The only native mammals in the Cayman Islands is Cayman’s bats.
Trivia question: What type of habitats does the Mastic Trail pass through?
Look for the answer in next week’s feature!