Neottia alternifolia (King & Pantl.) Szlach.

The Plant

Terrestrial. Whole plant 8 to 17 cm in height, with 4 to 5 long naked roots from its base. Stem more than half the height of the plant, naked, ribbed, fleshy, with a long tubular bract at its base. Leaf two arising around the apex of the stem, alternate, oval, sessile, base narrowed to a short tubular sheath, 1.5 to 2.5 cm long and less than 2 cm in width, three nerved and leathery. Flower two, in a long puberulous peduncle; its raceme very short, flowers arranged close together at its apex.

The Flower

Flower small, 1. 5 cm in cross-section. Sepals unequal, oblong to linear; dorsal shorter than the lateral, diagonally arching; lateral spreading, with its apex curving ahead. Petals as long as the sepals, oblong, spreading. Sepals and petals single nerved. Lip longer than the sepals and petals, obcordate with broad base, with a very minute canaliculate running down to its middle from its base. Floral bract ovate, erect, much smaller than the pedicel of the erect ovary and arising from the lower base of it.

Sepals, petals and lip pale green with its nerve and canaliculated of a darker shade. Floral bract green.

Neottia alternifolia (King & Pantl.) Szlach.
Neottia alternifolia (King & Pantl.) Szlach.

The Pursuit

Discovered and described by King and Pantling in their monumental work, “The Orchids of the Sikkim-Himalayas” more than 120 years ago. However, till date no researchers or botanists managed to locate the plant from its natural habitats and produce documentary evidence. For more than a century the only reference of the species is a drawing from the work of King and Pantling. Even though the authors mentioned its altitude as well as the location, none of the modern age researchers were able to locate it.

During my alpine orchid pursuit days, I was in the area from where King and Pantling located it. The location is a narrow valley with towering mountains on both sides and a river running in between. Both of the sides were heavily forested and with thick undergrowth. The monsoon showers made the forest floor thickly covered with various shrubs and plants. It was apparently impossible to locate anything of the size of this species. As I was aware of its presence from the referral book, I took special attention to conduct more surveys in those areas with a hope that I would be able to locate the species.

Everyday the monsoon was causing too much havoc and the survey was limited to the time when there were no rains. Moreover, I never studied this genus hence my knowledge about its habitat was limited. As it was my first alpine assignment, I had already decided to survey each and every corner of the region and was working according to plan.

Several areas of the dense forests were surveyed. Even though I found many other species this species was not traceable. It is a common phenomenon that many of the small plants described more than a century ago were never spotted again and many are believed to be extinct. I also thought the same about this species.

On one of those days in the second month of my alpine work, heavy rains stopped my survey and I was returning to my camp along the main road. As I was walking through a narrow turn with high hills on both sides, my instinct made me concentrate on the left side of the road. The side was as high as 40 ft and with many creepers and climbers tangled up together. My attention went to an open area, where the rock was white in texture. Suddenly I spotted a slender plant with alternate leaves. The alternate leaf arrangements were easily recognizable to me even from the road. But, as the plants were so small that I was not able to identify it from that distance. On that day I was missing my binoculars for a closer look. Then next to it I spotted another plant of the same composition but small in height. My curiosity gone much higher and I decided to climb the sidewall that was almost perpendicular. But with many strong climbers hanging down, climbing that wall was not a difficult matter. After leaving my backpack on the road I slowly climbed up the wall with the help of those tangled climbers. The plants were growing about 18 ft high. As I was moving up, I found two more plants of this species. Those two were the ones I was able to observe from close quarters and I immediately recognized the species. Tangling on the climbers about 15 ft high on a rock wall and confirming the find of such a rare plant on Earth will make any explorer so exited. Those moments cannot be described in words; it should be experienced. I climbed down swiftly to cross check the findings with the referral drawing and to make sure my find it correct.

It took another 15 to 20 minutes to control my breath and the anxiety. Then I started thinking about documenting the plant. Climbing up again with cameras and accessories was not so easy. If the twigs break there is a possibility of my expensive equipment getting damaged made me think about some other methods. Finally I decided to make a ladder to climb up to those plants. With the help of some fallen tree trunks I made a make shift ladder and reached the plants. While near to those first two finds, I found one more plant thus making the total finds to five, that too all in flowers. But the only difference was that all the plants were with only two flowers, a major contradiction to the 7 to 9 flowers on each plant as described by the authors. Sitting on the top step of the ladder and tied to many twigs of those climbers I made all requisite notes and drawings and also made the first ever photograph of this species. It was history in making as there I stood on top of that ladder. The first ever photograph of the species, which will enable the scientific fraternity across the globe to study and work on the species, was thus created. Also, the evidence will make us thing about the presence of many unseen plants from the region. I feel the theory of extinction should be changed to a way that “no species went extinct, they are just not recorded as no one ventured to their habitats”.


King, G. & Pantling, R. (1898). The Orchids of the Sikkim-Himalayas. Ann. Roy. Bot. Garden. (Calcutta). Listera alternifolia King and Pantling. Pg. no. 257.