Dove Orchids

Local lore has it that the our common Dove Orchids flower ten days before rain. It is approximately correct on all points.

Just so we know what we’re talking about, here is the flower:

a spray of Dove orchids
Dove orchids

The flowers are quite small, about 5 cm across, but are abundant and have a lovely scent. Sometimes we walk into the garden, take a deep breath and realise the orchids are out before we see them. The flowers do only last for a couple of days, unfortunately, but they are very pretty for that time. Between flowerings, the plant is easily overlooked – a messy tangle of stems, roots and leaves, especially if it has been there for a while. The dull green leaves are 6 – 7 cm long and 2 – 2.5 cm wide.

messy orchid plant
The orchid after flowering. This one has been on its palm trunk for several years.

Now, about all those partial truths:

  • Dove orchids are not quite local. They are native to a broad area of southern Asia (from India, Malaysia, Indonesia and Vietnam to the Phillipines and China) but not, apparently, northern Australia. New Guinea and Christmas Island, yes; Australian mainland, no. But they are well established in gardens around Townsville, growing and propagating happily with no attention at all. If wouldn’t surprise me if they have gone feral along our tropical coast.
  • ‘Dove orchid’ is the only common name used for them locally, and it is quite appropriate because the buds are shaped like little white birds; some people see a resemblance between the open blossom and a dove in flight, too. But ‘Dove Orchid’ is used for a quite different flower in Central America and some sources call ours the ‘Pigeon Orchid’. The scientific name is unambiguous, of course: Dendrobium crumenatum.
  • How could a plant ‘know’ that it is going to rain? It can’t, of course. We thought for a long time that our orchids were responding to an increase in humidity but it turns out that flowering is triggered by a sudden drop in temperature (Orchids Wiki suggests ‘at least 5.5 C’ is needed) and all the flowers will open together nine days later, not ten, according to my sources. The temperature drop often precedes the onset of rain, so once again, a partial truth.

All of our dove orchids – four clumps of them in various trees and shrubs – flowered together last Friday. Let’s see if it pours rain tomorrow or Monday!

Friday 11 November: the results are …

Townsville got 3.8 mm of rain on Monday 7th, none at all in the week before that day and none in the following two days, according to the BoM stats.

The Monday was the tenth day after the orchids flowered, so it looks like local lore is vindicated. On the other hand, those rainfall figures are for the airport and we may not have had even that much of a shower – and 3.8 mm hardly qualifies as ‘rain’ anyway!

In the immortal words of the last paragraph of every scientific paper written in the last fifty years, ‘more research is required.’

20 thoughts on “Dove Orchids”

  1. Testing, testing …
    They didn’t flower in late November and we got a lot of rain on Dec 5 & 6.
    They all flowered again today, Dec 13. Let’s see what happens on the 23rd. Hmmm … no rain at all Dec 21 – 27. C’mon, doves, you’ll have to do better than that!

  2. My family has a monster one of these. My great Grandmother brought it from Thangool down to Brisbane (probably a stolen snippet, as was her style), but she called it a Rain Orchid. I never knew about the ten day lore though, will have to pay more attention, ours only flowers when we’re virtually in for a monsoon, but not for normal rain. We have recently re-named it the Flood Orchid. It hadn’t flowered in years due to the drought, then just before Christmas Day 2010, it ‘spews’ literally thousands of beautiful little flowers. We all know what happened in January…

    1. Thanks for that information, Prue. I don’t know how far south the Dove Orchid would grow without special care. It is a tropical species so perhaps you’re on the edge of its range and its flowering trigger isn’t responding to your normal weather. After your last experience, I would probably be hoping it doesn’t flower too often!

      1. Hi there. I live in Brisbane northern suburbs and my Dove/Pigeon Orchid has a history of bursting into flower the day after severe electrical storms. I can only attest to this for the past two summers as the orchid came with the tree that came with the house – but it bloomed last year and this year (yesterday) after evening electrics lit the sky. Mine lives happily in the crook of a large poinsiana tree and the only sustenance it gets is the tree’s own litter.

  3. Hi, Roz,
    That behaviour puzzles me because as far as I know the plant should take more than one day to form buds. Thunderstorms are said to boost plant growth (as per http://www.veggiegardener.com/how-lightning-benefits-your-garden/ although I can’t vouch for the science) so perhaps the sequence is something like –
    • temperature drop initiates bud formation
    • a week later, a thunderstorm boosts bud development
    • a day later, blossoms open.
    That’s getting a bit speculative, but it’s the best I can do. Again, more research is needed :-)

  4. Well, the week is up, we’ve had no rain, and we’re not expecting any in the next few days. Tentative grading on that last prediction is therefore FAIL.
    But our dove orchids are flowering again today! Watch this space.

  5. Pingback: Spotted Doves
  6. Awoke this am to overpowering aroma of flowering dove orchids, never really aware of how many I have spread throughout my garden until they flower. Very spectacular today…So rain should follow. Will monitor and note number of days. Have a cardwell lilly about to flower and lots of cape york lillies flowering. Wondering why some flower and some produce only leaves when they re emerge…. Thank you for your photos and info…Will advise re rain in Cairns….

    1. Thanks, Neridah.
      Your Cape York lilies are well ahead of ours, which haven’t even poked their leaves up yet – and I don’t know the Cardwell lily at all.
      And yes, it would be great to know how well your doves predict the rain!

  7. Ah yes, mine too, and what a lovely reminder of our coming wet season it is. The interesting thing is that I had a very large Rain/Dove Orchid in an old mango tree in my back yard at Minnie St (Paramatta Park in Cairns). Cyclone Larry took out the tree and the orchid was pinned under the rotting trunk for some years. Over time I pulled most of it out in bits and pieces and distributed these to my neighbors and friends. I also placed some remains to various trees about the yard. Guess what? This morning all mine are in flower as are those I gave to my my neighbors etc. I guess I should not be surprised given that they originated from the same plant OR could it be that just like us they love nothing more than to talk about… and predict the weather?
    Rossco “Brown Thumbs” Nargar, 31 st Oct 2013

  8. Heavy rain in Cairns last night and even heavier tonight well done Dove orchids!!!!No idea why Cape York lillies are flowering in cairns and not Townsville, and the Cardwell lily is also known as the christmas lily or proiphys amboinensis info found page 76 plants of Tropical NQ, John Beasley…I only have one and have kept it in the pot I was given it in and it has flowered each year. Loving this rain ….Neridah

    1. Hi, Neridah,
      I looked up the Cardwell lily, recognised it when I saw the picture, went out into the garden and saw one in flower and a couple thinking about it. I’ve never known a name for it, though. (There’s a page about it and its relatives at http://www.anbg.gov.au/gnp/gnp14/proiphys-genus.html and it’s on the SGAP Townsville site, too, under the “Gardening” menu > “Gardening with Groundcovers”.)

      I think the answer to why your plants are ahead of ours is simply rain. We’ve had a very long, very dry winter – see http://malcolmtattersall.com.au/wp/2013/10/rain-last/ – and our lilies were waiting for a soaking. We did get 20 – 25 mm a couple of nights ago and our Cape York lilies have just begun to emerge.
      Our dove orchids predicted it, too – see my comment on the post I just linked to.

  9. We had a huge electrical storm on Saturday and 85mm here in Cairns. The flowers came out today Monday. We have been in a drought up until this. But I have noticed that the flowers do come out a few days after rain when it hasn’t rained for some time.

    1. Thanks, Graham.
      That matches Roz Rogers’ experience (about the 4th comment here). I doubted that buds could form and open so fast but maybe I was wrong.
      It’s beginning to look like we have two patterns:
      (1) Flowers appear a few days before heavy rain.
      (2) Flowers appear very soon after a thunderstorm breaks a dry spell.
      More research is still needed, though :-)

  10. Hi Malcolm. A friend and I have just been discussing this….. certainly I noticed my Pigeon Orchids have all flowered on the same day (yesterday) 12th, our (Mysterton, Townsville) January rainfall event started on the 2nd with a measly 1.2mm but the max temp was similar to what it had been ie 33. The next day Jan 3 we had 4.2mm and the temp dropped to 28! That is 9 days till this flowering. :-) seems to support that info that I also read online which suggests a drop of approx 5C required.
    The better rain 68mm happened on the 4th and I note the temp was back up to 31.6.
    There is a student project in there somewhere, provided you could get daily data… mine came from weatherzone! :-)
    Interesting subject flowering stimulation by rain… now looking up if there is any work on Phaleria clerodendron :-D
    cheers
    Gillian Edwards

    1. Hi, Gillian,
      You seem to have the causation back to front, I’m afraid: they are popularly supposed to flower nine days before rain, not after it, so if yours flowered (like mine) on the 12th then they were predicting rain around the 21st and we’re still waiting. I don’t think last night’s thunderstorm, cracker though it was, counts.
      As you say, there is a student project in there somewhere – or a citizen-science project along the lines of the bird count.
      I can’t help with your Phaleria clerodendron, sorry, but it you do get that sorted out perhaps you can look at another puzzle for me: we have “Rain Lilies” which reliably flower one day after rain but don’t take any notice at all of being watered. Why not?

      1. Wiki suggests “The bloom cycle is triggered 9 days after a sudden drop in temperature (at least 5.5 °C or 10 °F), usually as a result of rain…” Sunday 31/5/15 I noticed my pigon orchids in light, but tired looking, bloom and looking back on weatherzone for Mysterton (which is the airport obs I think anyway!) and saw there was a 4.5C drop from average on the 15th…. if near enough; good enough, then fits with my other observations of blooming following a temperature drop 9 days prior! I always assumed that in the wet when there are many rain events it must get pretty complicated tracking each stimulus???? It is interesting and yes I must watch my phaleriums (there are are 3) and see if I can detect a pattern….. flaw in that process…. too many other things to get distracted by :-o :-)

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