Look It Up

Orchid. For many botanists, the mere word is enough to quicken the pulse, widen the eyes and send the mind racing. These exotic treasures are a gift from nature, taking root in some of the most delicate ecosystems on Earth. Also, they kind of look like a woman's mystery places. Plant hunters will traverse the globe in search of a particularly rare bloom, but one orchid may be prized above all others. It is Apostasia abscondita, otherwise known as Ophelia's Wraith, or simply the Wraith. Few have ever seen the Wraith, and fewer still have gotten close enough to study it. What little information we know paints a picture of a truly magnificent flower, whose beauty is so exquisite that Tchaikovsky allegedly once quipped, "I cannot recreate in five movements what the Wraith does with none."

Ophelia's Wraith is found only in the coastal regions of Argentina, Chile and Peru. It grows in the shade of the rain forest canopy, on slopes facing west, where the ground is sufficiently damp and there is ample breeze. They will not grow if there are too many salamanders nearby, but they have difficulty if there are too few, as well. Estimates vary, but there are believed to be only around a dozen Wraiths alive at any given time.

From a slender stalk, the Wraith produces a single flower of pale yellow, streaked at the center and edges streaked with a dark, almost vampiric crimson. The flower unfurls only in the mornings and late afternoons, closing for shelter between the hours of 11:00 AM and 3:30 PM. It is pollinated only by a particular hummingbird, Heliodoxa proeliati, which itself has only been glimpsed a handful of times. Excessively loud noises can kill the plant instantly.

Waxy, orbiculate leaves radiate in nested layers down the length of the stalk. The leaves will crumble to ash if glared at too harshly. Robbed of the ability to photosynthesize, the flower wilts and dies a slow death. As it does so, it exudes a chemical that can be sensed by other plants nearby, which then wilt and die as well, an affect known as "abscondita sadness."

The closest photo ever taken of Apostasia abscondita. The flower can be seen towards the back, on the left.

Reaching the Wraith's habitat requires a long journey on foot, since it has never been seen closer than 30 miles from human activity. Once a specimen is spotted, it must be approached quietly and calmly over the course of several days. There have been reports of botanists going mad simply from the strain of approaching a Wraith. They run off into the jungle, and most are never heard from again. Those that do survive are hollow shells — husks that have been drained of all logic or reason.

The scent of the Wraith changes, depending on (among other things) soil acidity, seismic activity, and phase of the moon. At any given time, the flower may smell like fine perfume, strawberries, coffee, library books, cinnamon, paint, fresh baked bread, white wine, gunpowder, rain storms, or a new car.

Researchers speculate that the elusive flower could have extraordinary medicinal properties. South American tribal cultures have used it as a cure-all for centuries, even claiming that it has restored life to the dead. They do tend to exaggerate events over time, though — a problem they wouldn't freaking have if they wrote things down every now and then. Regardless, there is likely some validity to the health claims. A 1992 study published in The New England Journal of Medicine found compelling evidence that a tincture of abscondita restored to full health a man who had been suffering from type 1 diabetes, bone marrow cancer, and a lawnmower accident.

The call of Ophelia's Wraith is unlikely to fade. So long as it remains out there in the wilderness, its name will conjure flights of fancy and dreams of grandeur in botanists around the world.

Because let's face it, they really are a sheltered bunch.