Ansellia is considered a monotypic genus of orchid, with only one species, Ansellia africana, commonly known as African ansellia or leopard orchid, however, it is in fact a complex group of species which share common floral structure and growth habit.
The plants are found throughout neotropical and subtropical Africa. It was named after John Ansell, an English assistant botanist. who found the first specimens in 1841 on the Fernando Po Island in West Africa. This genus is abbreviated as Aslla in horticultural trade.
It is referred to along with Grammatophyllum as a “trash basket” orchid due to its odd habit of creating a makeshift container of aerial roots to catch falling leaf litter for nutrients.
This orchid is native to tropical and southern Africa, found alongside coasts and rivers in the canopy of trees, usually at elevations lower than 700 m (occasionally up to 2,200 m).
This is a large, perennial, and epiphyte, or at times a terrestrial plant, growing in sometimes spectacular clumps, attached to the branches of tall trees. The white, needle-like, aerial roots are characteristic for this orchid. They point upwards, taking the form of a trash basket around the tall, many-noded, fusiform, canelike, yellow pseudobulbs, catching the decaying leaves and detritus upon which the plant feeds. These pseudobulbs can develop a gigantic size, up to 60 cm long. This robust orchid can grow very large, sometimes with an estimated weight over a tonne. Even eagle owls (Bubo bubo) have been seen to make their nest in such a clump.
The roots which penetrate the substrate can become very thick and cord-like to support the weight of the plants, and are typically very different in form than the roots which comprise the trash basket as the aerial roots are non-absorbing. Breakdown and absorption of nutrients by the plant from the trash basket is performed by its fungal symbionts and the active absorbing roots.
These pseudobulbs carry on their top 6 to 7, narrowly ligulate-lanceolate, acute, plicate, leathery leaves. They give rise to a paniculateinflorescence, up to 85 cm long, with many (10 to 100), delicately scented flowers, 6 cm across.
The three-lobed lip grows into three yellow projections. The tepals are yellow or greenish yellow, lightly or heavily marked with brown spots. The flowers are short-lived, seldom lasting longer than 10 days, but are produced in abundance provided the plants have received high light levels throughout the year.