Mystacidium capense: A Dainty Orchid from South Africa 🌍✾


Queensland Orchid International Mystacidium capense

The genus Mystacidium belongs to the Orchidaceae family, the Epidendroideae subfamily, the Vandeae tribe, and the Aerangidinae subtribe. There are about ten species in the genus Mystacidium, which is native to eastern and southern Africa from Tanzania to South Africa. The name itself originates from the Greek word mystax, meaning moustache, which the hairy rostellum lobes in some species of the genus resemble. Within the genus, Mystacidium capense is the smallest species and yet has the largest flower. The foliage of a specimen in full bloom can be almost obscured by its plentiful starry white flowers born on pendulous racemes. Hence, this orchid is indeed a minute but showy denizen in the Angraecinae or Angraeco​id alliance. Whilst the stature of this little epiphytic orchid is diminutive, its fleshy root system is by comparison quite extensive, providing ample support and absorbing moisture and nutrients for the plant. Making an impression in the olfactory department, the scent of Mystacidium capense has been described as “strong, sweet, vanilla, with just a slight hint of honey”, “somewhere between lily-of-the-valley and citrus”, jasmine or celery.

Much like its far larger cousin, Angraecum sesquipedale (also known as Darwin’s orchid, Christmas orchid, Star of Bethlehem orchid, Madagascan Star orchid, Comet orchid, King of the Angraecums, and The One and a Half Foot Long Angraecum), Mystacidium capense is also hawkmoth-pollinated and bears the hallmark of Flower-Pollinator Relationship in particular and Insect-Plant Relationship in general, through the dynamics of pairwise coevolution, reciprocal evolution, mutualism and service-resource relationship, as well as sphingophily, a specific pollination syndrome named after Sphingidae, a family of about 1,450 species of moths (commonly known as hawkmoths, sphinx moths and hornworms), the nocturnal species of which tend to be attracted to pale flowers with long corolla tubes and a sweet odour. That coevolution so similar in kind has left its mark in species so dissimilar in size is quite remarkable. Taxonomically, both species had crossed paths at the level of genus, given that Angraecum sesquipedale was classified as Mystacidium sesquipedale (Rolfe) in 1904, whereas Mystacidium capense was originally called Angraecum capense (Lindl.) in 1830–40. Morphologically speaking, Mystacidium capense is almost certainly pollinated by moths, judging by the fragrance and whiteness of its flower, and by the flower’s long, tubular corolla structure known as a spur or nectary. Moreover, the length of spur on the flower of Mystacidium capense determines which species of moth is the exclusive pollinator. Robyn P Luyt’s Master of Science Thesis of 2002 entitled “Pollination and evolution of the genus Mystacidium (Orchidaceae)” reveals that

  • Both Mystacidium capense and Mystacidium venosum are exclusively pollinated by long-tongued hawkmoths since their spur lengths are 3.9cm and 4.7cm respectively, whereas other Mystacidium species are pollinated by settling noctuid moths (and perhaps also bees, flies or even butterflies), since their spur lengths are less than 3cm.
  • All except two species in the genus are scented, especially during night time to attract nocturnal pollinators.
  • There is still taxonomical uncertainty within the genus, which is not monophyletic according to a phylogenetic analysis.
  • The phylogeny indicates that the white, long-spurred flowers of Mystacidium capense and Mystacidium venosum are basal within the genus, whereas the short-spurred species and those with green flowers are derived.
  • All species in the genus rely on CAM (Crassulacean acid metabolism) to reduce water loss by transpiration, taking in CO2 at night, and photo-fixing it during the day with closed stomata.

The abstract of the thesis summarizes these findings as follows:

The morphology, anatomy and pollination biology of Mystacidium Lindl., a small, epiphytic genus of orchids, was investigated within a phylogenetic context. Morphological and anatomical studies were carried out in order to obtain characters for a cladistic analysis of the genus using Cyrtorchis arcuata (Lindl.) Schltr. as an outgroup. The phylogenetic analysis indicated that the genus may not be monophyletic. Two species of the closely related genus Diaphananthe Schltr., D. caffra (H.Bol.) Linder and D. millarii (H.Bol.) Linder, appear to be nested within Mystacidium. Mystacidium species grow in habitats varying from mistbelt forest to dry savanna. Analysis of stable isotope composition (Ȣ¹³C values) of leaves and roots showed that all Mystacidium species, as well as D. caffra and the outgroup C. arcuata, employ CAM photosynthesis. The Ȣ¹³C values were significantly negatively correlated with mean annual rainfall at the collection sites. Breeding system experiments revealed that Mystacidium is dependent on pollinators for fruit set, and that self-pollination results in substantially reduced seed set due to either inbreeding depression or partial self-incompatibility. Field observations revealed that M. venosum Harv. ex Rolfe and M. capense (L.f.) Schltr. are hawkmoth-pollinated, and that M. gracile Harv. and M. pusillum Harv. are pollinated by settling moths. The spurs of the flowers contain dilute, sucrose-dominant nectar. Mystacidium venosum and M. capense showed evidence of nectar reabsorption. Nocturnal emission of scent occurred in all species except M. aliceae H. Bolus and M. brayboniae Summerh., which are unscented, and was composed largely of a combination of monoterpenes and benzoids. Despite substantial variation in spur length (1 – 4.7 cm) among species, no evidence for directional selection on spur length was found in M. venosum, M. capense or M. gracile. Hand pollinations significantly increased fruit set in M. capense in two consecutive seasons at different sites, indicating pollen limitation. Although pollen removal was greater than pollen receipt in M. venosum, M. capense and M. gracile, suggesting transport loss or insufficient visitation, a remarkably high percentage of removed pollen reached stigmas (35 – 50%). Experiments on M. venosum revealed that flower longevity is reduced by pollination, and that pollinia removed from flowers remained viable for up to 20 days under field conditions. The phylogeny indicated that long-spurred, hawkmoth-pollinated species are basal within the genus, and that shorter-spurred species pollinated by noctuid moths are derived.

That only Mystacidium capense and Mystacidium venosum are pollinated by hawkmoths is also given further credence by the fact that Project Fragrance, a talk given at the LOG seminar in November 1999 by Linet Hamman, uses both species as the final two indigenous examples of scented orchid, describing that both “emit a strong, musky smell after dark”.

Those who are interested in detailed discussions on the coevolution of insects and plants may consult the following posts:

There are two common names and more than half a dozen botanical names for this diminutive gem from South Africa and the Kingdom of Swaziland:

Common Names

  1. Cape of Good Hope Mystacidium
  2. Iphamba (Zulu)

Botanical Names

  1. Aeranthes filicornis (Lindl.) Rchb. f. 1864
  2. Angraecum capense Lindl. 1830-40
  3. Epidendrum capense L. f. 1782
  4. Epidorchis longicornis (Sw.) Kuntze 1891
  5. Limodorum longicornu Sw. 1799
  6. Mystacidium filicorne Lindley 1836
  7. Mystacidium longicornu T. Durand & Schinz 1895

As shown above, Mystacidium capense carries a common name bearing the prominent stature and geographical fame of the Cape of Good Hope, which is a rocky headland on the Atlantic coast of the Cape Peninsula in South Africa, and which is often mistakenly believed to be the southernmost point of Africa, as qualified by Cape Agulhas, approximately 150 km to the east-southeast.

According to Brian Tarr from the Natal National Botanic Garden, writing for the South African National Biodiversity Institute’s plant information website in December 2003, Mystacidium capense is traditionally used as a protective and love charm. In the Natal Midlands, the orchid’s dustlike seeds sprout easily on non-indigenous tree species such as cypresses and oranges, coating their branches and trunks and growing en masse (to the annoyance of some farmers). Other host plants on which the orchid species has been observed in situ as well as the range of winter and summer temperatures and rainfalls are documented as follows by Brenda Oviatt and Bill Nerison, who regard the species as a collector’s item:

Mystacidium capense is the most widespread species of Mystacidium in South Africa. It is found at low altitudes (sea level to 2,300 feet [700 m]) in the hotter, drier areas of the region. It grows epiphytically in Acacia (thorn tree) woodlands and bush, a habitat where few, if any, other epiphytic orchids occur, and sometimes even grows on succulent candelabra Euphorbia trees. We’ve seen pictures of it growing on False Olive (Buddleja saligna), a common shrub in South Africa. In one locality where Mycdm. capense is found, the average June and July temperatures range from lows of 50 F (10 C) to highs of 73.4 F (23 C) with 0.8 inch (21 mm) of rainfall. Average December and January temperatures are lows of 64.4 F (18 C) and highs of 80.6 F (27 C) with about 4¾ inches (120 mm) of rainfall. Do keep in mind that this is in the southern hemisphere.

As the following excerpt from orchidspecies.com described, this monopodial orchid is a cool- to cold-growing miniature that prefers growing in shade and being mounted:

Flower Size 1/2″ to 1 1/4″ [1.5 to 3 cm]

Found in South Africa as a miniature sized, clump forming, shade and humidity loving, cool to cold growing epiphyte occuring at elevations of sealevel to 700 meters in the dry savannahs and in evergreen forests in deep shade and has a monopodial growth habit with a short stem covered by sheathing leaf bases each carrying spreading, obovate to oblanceolate, unequally roundly or obtusely bilobed apically leaves that are articulated to the basal leaf sheath bases and all held in one plane that blooms in the late spring and summer on an axillary, pendant, 2 to 4″ [5 to 10 cm] long, few to several [6 to 12] flowered, racemose inflorescence with ovate to obovate, acute or apiculate floral bracts and carrying nocturnally jasmine scented flowers.

Mount this species on cork and hang in semi-shade, give cold to warm temperatures, regular watering while in growth and with a definite drying out and a dry winter rest.

According to Ron (from Lynden, Washington, Pacific Northwest, United States) who published the following on his blog entitled “Orchids in Bloom: My orchidarium and some of the orchids I’ve bloomed”:

Mystacidium capense is a small orchid related to Angraecum and Aerangis and comes from the same general area, in this case from South Africa.  The plant is 8-10 cm across and the flowers are 2 cm tall, but have a very long, 6 cm spur on the back of the lip which is nearly transparent and in which one can see the nectar that attracts the pollinators, almost surely a night-flying moth of some kind.  The flowers have a crystalline texture that is visible in the photos and are sweetly fragrant as well.  The plant is best grown mounted to accommodate the pendant flower spikes and prefer warm temperatures, though I grown it cool to intermediate.

Kyk nou wil ek regtig spog met my nuwe toevoeging tot my orgidee’s versameling….Mystacidium Capense….wens julle kan dit sien en ruik…

Mystacidium capense Out of Africa
🌍 ➯ 🌏

Without its exclusive pollinator, the seed formation and dispersal of this dainty orchid growing outside its endemic habitat on indigenous vegetation such as Acacia woodlands and bushes, or non-indigenous tree species such as cypresses and oranges, are unlikely to happen. In Australia, Mystacidium capense is still very much a collector’s item, its availability being restricted to dedicated experts and connoisseurs of orchids originating from South Africa in particular, and of orchids in the Angraecinae or Angraeco​id alliance in general. However, its visibility has been given a substantial boost through high-profile awards conferred in 2015 and 2016 on a floriferous specimen grown under greenhouse condition by the Haywoods residing in Bendigo, as shown in the following photos.

Initially, this specimen was growing poorly until it was remounted on a new piece of cork in 2010. It blooms annually during springtime, beginning at the end of October or the beginning of November. Its flowers open simultaneously and stay fresh for about six weeks, after which they can remain on the raceme for a further two to three weeks looking subpar.

The Four-Year Journey of a Special Mystacidium capense
Click any image below to see gallery images displayed in a full-size carousel view and to comment on each photo.
AOC Species Orchid of the year 2015

Tuesday 1:29pm 29 March 2016

Click here to visit Barbara Haywood Barbara Haywood: Easter here was a quiet affair. We were busy about the garden weeding and watering etc. Potting a few orchids and fertilizing those in the Hothouse.
Sunday we got the most wonderful news. The Secretary of Our VRJP/AOC panel, Stephen, sent us an Email to advise us that our Mystacidium capense ‘Nasarka’ FCC/AOC was officially voted by all the states as AOC Species Orchid of the year 2015. Thank you to everyone on our VRJP/AOC panel and to all those AOC judges who voted for it Australia wide. We are over the moon. Never had we ever dreamed of winning such an award. We are so chuffed, so appreciative, we cannot find enough words!!😀😀😀Max and Barbara.💖

6 inflorecences of 220mm with 39 flowers (9 relevant); petals and sepals White group NN155C with Yellow/Green 145B behind column; labellum White group NN155C

We are very proud tonight. We were presented with the AOC Victorian Species of the year 2015 certificate and the Plaque for the National AOC Species of the year 2015. For our Mystacidium Capense ‘Nasarka’ FCC/AOC. Thank you to all the Victorian and Australian judges who voted for it. Barbara and Max.

Mystacidium capense (L.f.) Schltr., Orchideen: 597 (1914).
In habitat, a cool to cold growing epiphyte from South Africa at elevations of sea level to around 800 metres.
The cultivar shown is Mystacidium capense ‘Nasarka’ FCC/AOC
Grown by Barbara Haywood
Photo © Barbara Haywood
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