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Sun orchids
Thelymitra benthamiana.jpg
Leopard orchid Thelymitra benthamiana near Mount Chudalup
Scientific classification e
Kingdom: Plantae
Clade: Tracheophytes
Clade: Angiosperms
Clade: Monocots
Order: Asparagales
Family: Orchidaceae
Subfamily: Orchidoideae
Tribe: Diurideae
Subtribe: Thelymitrinae
Genus: Thelymitra
J.R.Forst. & G.Forst., 1775
Type species
Thelymitra longifolia
J.R.Forst. & G.Forst., Char. Gen. Pl.: 49 (1775).
List of Thelymitra species

Thelymitra, commonly known as sun orchids, is a genus of more than 100 species of plants in the orchid family, Orchidaceae. Unlike most other orchids, sun orchids lack a highly modified labellum and all three petals are similar in size, shape and colour. The column is, however, highly modified and usually has prominent wings or glands which are helpful in identifying the species. Most sun orchids close their flowers at night, in cloudy or cool weather, giving rise to their common name. The scientific name means "woman's hood" and refers to the hooded column present in most, but not all species. Most species are endemic to Australia although some are found as far from there as the Philippines and Indonesia. The type species, Thelymitra longifolia, the first to be formally described, was collected in New Zealand.


Orchids in the genus Thelymitra are terrestrial, perennial, deciduous, sympodial herbs usually with a few inconspicuous, fine roots and a pair of oval-shaped tubers. A single leaf emerges from near the base of the plant and surrounds the lower part of the flowering stem.[1][2]

The inflorescence is a raceme with from one to many resupinate flowers with three sepals and three petals all more or less alike in size, shape and ornamentation. (The labellum is not highly modified as in most other orchid genera but is similar to the other two petals.) The sexual parts of the flower are fused to the column which is short and stubby with wings which surround the column, forming a hood-like "mitra". The dorsal part of the mitra is usually ornamented, with a flat midsection and two side arms. The lower part of the mitra forms an unornamented rim below the column. The flowers of most species only open in bright warm sunlight and close at night or during cold or cloudy weather. A few species self pollinate and their reaction to environmental change is not as apparent. The fruit that follows flowering is a non-fleshy, dehiscent capsule containing up to 500 seeds.[1][2][3]

Taxonomy and naming[edit]

Joseph Banks collected specimens of Thelymitra longifolia on the North Island of New Zealand during Cook's first expedition to the South Pacific but the first formal description of that species was made by Johann Forster and his son Georg during Cook's second expedition to Australia. They made their collections on the South Island of New Zealand.[4] Thelymitra longifolia is therefore the type species.[5][6] In 1803, Robert Brown collected T. venosa from Port Jackson and was the first to formally describe it in 1810.[7][8][9]

The name "Thelymitra" is derived from the Ancient Greek words thelys meaning "belonging to women"[10]:862 and mitra meaning "headdress" or "turban"[10]:183 referring to the hooded column.

Distribution and habitat[edit]

There are about 100 species distributed in higher rainfall areas of Australia, 15 in New Zealand, 11 of which are endemic, one in New Caledonia, one in East Timor and one in Java and the Philippines. Australian species grow in a range of habitats from swamps to relatively dry sandplains. They are common around granite boulders where they benefit from runoff.[3] The New Zealand species grow in boggy places and on clay banks[11] and T. javanica grows on sparsely vegetated mountain slopes.[12][13]


The particular shape and color of the sun orchids mimics the flowers of lily family (Liliaceae) and the family Goodeniaceae, aiming by deceit for the same insect pollinators.[14] The slender sun orchid (T. pauciflora) only opens for a short time (or not at all) and is self-pollinating. This self-pollination is a successful strategy followed by several other species such as and T. circumsepta, T. graminea , T. holmesii and T. mucida.


Several species are considered by the IUCN as endangered (T. epipactoides) or critically endangered (T. gregaria, T. hiemalis and T. × mackibbinii).[15]

Use in horticulture[edit]

Thelymitras can be grown in a freely draining, dense mixture with partially composted organic matter. A suitable mixture is an equal mix of 7 mm road screenings, year old composted wood chips and commercial potting mix. It is good practice to cover the surface in pine or she-oak needles to control water loss and to feed the mycorrhizal fungi that support the orchid. Due to the buds only opening in warm weather, it is common practice to induce flowering by using a bank of strong incandescent lights to simulate the warm sun. Some work has gone into growing hybrids for better growing and more colour.[16]


See List of Thelymitra species



  1. ^ a b Bernhardt, Peter H. "Thelymitra". Royal Botanic Garden Sydney: plantnet. Retrieved 16 July 2016.
  2. ^ a b "Thelymitra". FloraBase. Western Australian Government Department of Parks and Wildlife.
  3. ^ a b Hoffman, Noel; Brown, Andrew (2011). Orchids of South-West Australia (3rd ed.). Gooseberry Hill: Noel Hoffman. pp. 285–286. ISBN 9780646562322.
  4. ^ Edens-Meier, Retha (ed.); Bernhardt, Peter (ed.) (2014). Darwin's orchids then and now. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. p. 173. ISBN 9780226044910.CS1 maint: extra text: authors list (link)
  5. ^ "Thelymitra". APNI. Retrieved 15 July 2016.
  6. ^ Forster, Johann Reinhold; Forster, Georg (1775). Characteres Generum Plantarum (Edition 1). London. pp. 97–98. Retrieved 15 July 2016.
  7. ^ Jeanes, Jeffrey A. (2012). "Two new rare species in the Thelymitra venosa complex (Orchidaceae) from south-eastern mainland Australia". Muelleria. 30 (1): 8.
  8. ^ "Thelymitra venosa". APNI. Retrieved 15 July 2016.
  9. ^ Brown, Robert (1810). Prodromus Florae Novae Hollandiae. London. p. 314. Retrieved 15 July 2016.
  10. ^ a b Brown, Roland Wilbur (1956). The Composition of Scientific Words. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press.
  11. ^ "Sun Orchids". New Zealand Native Orchid Group. Retrieved 19 July 2016.
  12. ^ "Thelymitra javanica". Internet Orchid Species Photo Encyclopedia. Retrieved 19 July 2016.
  13. ^ Jeanes, Jeffrey A. (2004). "A revision of the Thelymitra pauciflora R.Br. (Orchidaceae) complex in Australia". Muelleria. 19: 19–79.
  14. ^ Edens-Meier, Retha M.; Raguso, Robert A.; Westhus, Eric; Bernhardt, Peter (21 March 2014). "Floral Fraudulence: Do Blue Thelymitra Species (Orchidaceae) Mimic Orthrosanthus laxus (Iridaceae)?". Telopea. 17: 15–28. doi:10.7751/telopea20147392.
  15. ^ Coates, Fiona; Jeanes, Jeff; Pritchard, Andrew. "Recovery plan for twenty five threatened orchid taxa of Victoria, South Australia and New South Wales (2003 - 2007)" (PDF). Government of Australia Department of the Environment and Heritage. Retrieved 19 July 2016.
  16. ^ Nesbitt, Les. "Australia's Native Orchids". Australian Native Plants Society Australia. Retrieved 19 July 2016.
  • Pamela Burns-Balogh & Peter Bernhardt (1988). "Floral evolution and phylogeny in the tribeThelymitreae (Orchidaceae: Neottioideae)". Plant Systematics and Evolution. 159. doi:10.1007/bf00937424.
  • Breiner, E. & Breiner, R. (2003). "Thelymitra, die sun orchids: eine bemerkenswerte Orchideen-Gattung aus Australien". Orchidee. 54 (3): 350–351. (in German)

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