Florida Dancing Lady Orchid

Tolumnia bahamensis

Florida dancing lady orchid

Florida dancing lady orchid, photographed in Palm Beach County, site withheld, in April 2024

Extremely beautiful and extremely rare. That pretty much sums up the Florida dancing lady orchid, aka Tolumnia bahamensis.

Its beauty speaks for itself. As for its rarity, Florida dancing lady orchids are only found in the coastal scrubs of Palm Beach and Martin counties. It’s so rare that at one point, you could have counted the number of specimens known to exist on one hand.

Fortunately, it’s not quite that rare now. Not quite.

The problems facing Florida dancing lady orchids are two-fold. First, coastal scrub, its primary habitat, has become rare because of development. Scrub can be found only in a handful of parks and preserves.

Second, like many of Florida’s orchids, it’s been the target of poachers. For that reason, we’ve decided not to disclose the site where we found it at the property manager’s request. This is the first time we’ve done so.

Back to the good news: efforts are being made to restore Florida dancing lady orchid to the wild, and as evidenced by these photos, they’re paying off. We have been told that spring 2024 has been a very good season for Florida dancing ladies.

Now for some basics: Florida dancing lady orchids are perennials; they can be terrestrial, growing on the ground often at the base of a Florida rosemary plant, or as an epiphyte, or air plant, growing on a shrub or shrubby tree. The leaves grow fan-like, usually four to eight per plant, and plants can spread via rhizomes, or underground stems.

When not in bloom, the plants are low to the ground and rather ordinary. When in bloom, they become extraordinary, shooting up as tall as two feet by most accounts, and can produce multiple flower spikes called racemes. A single Florida dancing lady orchid can have as many as 50 flowers, each a complex mix of whites, yellows, reds and purples. We’ll leave it to others to provide a technical description of the blooms. If you’re interested, check out the Flora of North America page, link below. We’ll just say the common name is apt to their form.

How it gets pollinated is one of the most bizarre methods of which we have read. It involves a bee, Centris errans, commonly known as the wandering centris, spiny bear’s breech or Florida locust-berry oil-collecting bee. Take your pick. Nothing strange so far.

According to the North American Orchid Center, the bee mistakes the flowers for another insect and attacks them. In the process, parts of the flower called pollinaria often stick to the bee’s head. As you might guess from the name, pollinaria contain pollen. As we said, bizarre.

As the scientific name suggests, the native range of Florida dancing lady orchids includes the Bahamas. It was first discovered in Florida near West Palm Beach in 1904 by one Frank Idner, and according to the book, Rare Plants of South Florida not seen again until 1926.

According to the book, two brothers in the late 1950s found a patch west of Lake Worth and collected 30 plants. The area was searched again but no additional plants were found, and the site since has been developed. In 1994, one, count ‘em, one plant was found in one of Palm Beach County’s northern natural areas. (Again, we’re redacting the name.) It’s been found elsewhere but not in any abundance.

According to one theory, Florida dancing lady orchids originated in the Bahamas and were brought to Florida by Bahamian settlers. However, according to Rare Plants, there’s no evidence backing it up.

The Florida dancing lady orchid is state-listed as endangered, but is not listed by the feds. The Institute for Regional Conservation considers it critically imperiled, while the North American Orchid Center considers it globally imperiled.

Another bit of good news: Google Tolumnia bahamensis and you’ll come up with a lengthy list of vendors selling this extraordinary — a word we’ve used a lot on this page — orchid.

Florida dancing lady orchid is also known as dancinglady orchid, Florida’s dancing lady orchid and variegated orchid. We’ve also seen dancing-lady. It is a member of Orchidaceae, the orchid family.

One last side note: We originally thought this was a member of the genus Oncidium, also commonly called dancing lady orchids. In fact, one of its synonyms is Oncidium bahamensis. The form of the flower is similar but the colors and native range of Oncidium members found in South Florida don’t match.

Photo Gallery — Click on photo for larger image

Published by Wild South Florida, PO Box 7241, Delray Beach, FL 33482.

Photographs by David Sedore. Photographs are property of the publishers and may not be used without permission.