Calanthe alpina Hook.f. ex Lindl.

The Plant

Terrestrial. Pseudo-bulbs closely arranged, cylindric, with two or three annular markings, tapering to both ends, 2 to 4 cm long and 1 to 1.5 cm in diameter, with few scattered stout roots. Pseudo-stem very short, sheathed. Leaves three, unequal, oblanceolate, acute, tapering towards a short petiole, 7 to 12 cm long and 2 to 4 cm in width, petiole 1 to 1.5 cm long, distinctly veined. Flowers few, laxly arranged in a peduncle arising from the inside of the outer leaf. Peduncle smaller than the longer leaf and with a single lanceolate bract around one third of its height from the base.

The Flower

Flowers 2 to 3 cm across. Sepals almost equal, ovate with pointed apex, margins to the apex curved up to form a boat like structure. Dorsal sepals arching or diagonally erect, lateral not spreading, curved forward, five nerved. Petals smaller than the sepals, lanceolate with pointed apex, the boat shaped margins toward the apex is not prominent as that of sepals, not spreading but curved forward. Lip as long as the sepals, without side lobes, broadly lanceolate when spread, margins fimbriate as well as curved up to form a boat like structure. Spur straight, cylindric, longer than the decurved ovary and narrowing to its minutely bifid apex. Floral bracts lanceolate, diminishing upwards, arising from the upper side and less than half the size of the decurved ovary,

Sepals and petals pale creamy white at their bases turning greenish white to their margins and apexes. Lip creamy white, its disc with five pinkish brown parallel broad lines running through its entire length. The fimbriate margins, under side of the lip and the portion on the sides of the disc are with irregular markings and spots of pinkish brown. Spur pale creamy white. Floral bract pale green to its base and turning green towards its apex.

Calanthe alpina, Hook.f. ex Lindl.
Calanthe alpina Hook.f. ex Lindl.

The Pursuit

A plant found and described by Sir. J. D. Hooker on his epical voyage in the Sikkim-Himalayas back in 1848-49. However, even after more than 164 years this plant was not documented at all from the region. Several publications by many eminent researchers were out in the market in those 164 years with descriptions of this species. But none of them were able to produce a photograph of this species in flower or in plant thus underlining the fact that none of them had ever spotted the plant from its natural habitats. The description of the plant were merely a “cut and paste” from Hooker’s publication.

I was determined to find this plant at any cost. During my alpine region work in the monsoon months I had put extra efforts to locate this species. Two monsoon seasons went without any trace of the species. In 2012, during the monsoon I was in the high hills doing my alpine hunt. The region is mostly under the control of border security force and needs many reporting at several points for my movement. Due to various reasons beyond explanation I became very familiar and close with many of the officials, which enabled my movement and work in the region without much obstacles. On one such day, as I was there on the reporting desk to report about that day’s trip, the official who was in charge of co-ordination asked me whether I am willing to accompany a team of personnel on a mission inside the deep forest. My reply to such a wonderful opportunity was affirmative.

Within a short time the entire party was ready to leave and I accompanied them. They were trekking to a deep forest inside a valley for fixing some communication lines that had snapped during the previous day’s rain. The area was a region I had never ventured. It was a golden opportunity to explore a new area, along with many security personnel; some of them had undergone jungle warfare coaching. The sixth sense in me was saying, “that today I am going to find something new”. It was the monsoon season and there will be many annular plants in bloom. The only difficulty is that to locate them from the thick under growths, which cover the forest floor during the monsoon. The only advantage of those alpine forests is that there will not be any poisonous snakes. The first one-hour went without any new finds, all the species I spotted were all recorded earlier by me. As the personnel were working with their assignment, I ventured down to the valley, which was covered with towering trees all around. The forest was silent but for the sound of the flow of a small stream. My experience with thick forests in the alpine region shows that the streams inside thick forest are heaven for annular plants especially terrestrial orchids. As the valley was having a steep slope it was very difficult to walk ahead to the stream. As I had a strong back up team few meters behind me to tackle any emergencies I was determined to move forward to the stream. It took me around 40 minutes to cover few meters to reach down to the stream. It was hardly 2 m wide, but the flow was so strong I was not able to cross it. Hence, I decided to climb up-hill along its side so that I can survey both the sides of the stream. As the valley was deep the up hill climb was more difficult. I dropped the idea of up-hill climb and decided to go back and join the personnel at work. As I was turning around I spotted three small plants in bloom, less than 15 cm in height, on the other side of the stream. I was not able to identify it, however I understood it was an orchid species. I never missed any opportunity to document an orchid, how great the difficulties I have to face. I thought of several ideas to cross the stream, but crossing it all alone was very risky. Then I thought of taking the help of security personnel at work. Surprisingly, an interesting idea came to me – climb up a tree of this side of the stream and move across a branch hanging to the other side and jump down!!! I don’t know from where I got the courage or skills, I was up a tree in a few seconds, moved across and jumped down on the other side of the stream. With great difficulty I reached those plants and to my surprise it was Calanthe alpina Hook., a plant which was never found for more than 150 years from the region. I was in a state of ecstasy that I have no words to explain. The flowers were fresh bloom with many buds still to be in bloom. “It seems they were waiting for me”. I sat there near to the plant on that wet forest floor, spread out my notebook to make drawings and noted down other details, and started documenting it. By then, the security personnel started beckoning me. I responded with message that I will join them soon. I documented the plant and its flowers till all the batteries I was carrying drained out.

The most interesting part of that day was still to follow; I found no ways to cross the stream. Most of the trees on the other side were with wide trunks and I was unable to climb. After several attempts, I called for help and a few personnel came running to my rescue. They helped me with ropes and fallen tree trunks to cross the stream. We all returned to the base after around 2 hours of steep climb. In the evening I got a message from the highest security official of the unit to meet him next day. I guessed it would be regarding my risky affairs of the day. The next day I visited him at his office. Before he started the topic I mesmerized him with many beautiful photographs of the species and explained to him the importance of the find. The talk and discussion went for about half an hour and by that time he virtually had forgotten for what he had called me.


King, G. & Pantling, R. (1898). The Orchids of the Sikkim-Himalayas. Ann. Roy. Bot. Garden. (Calcutta). Calanthe alpina Hook., Page no 170.