The orchid family is composed of a big number of species, about 20.000. Even they are almost around all world, the most live in tropical places and they are epiphytes, that is, they live over other plants. Nowadays, the number of the species is boosted by the commercial interest. Trying to find new characters and colours, many gardeners and hobbyists have created new varieties from the breeding of two distinct species of orchids, that is, they have made artificial hybridization. Even so, it can also happen in nature as usual.
The orchid flower owns a single structure. The most representative part is the column or gynostemium, which is the result of masculine and feminine reproductive parts combined. The perianth, consisting of the calyx (the outermost whorl of parts that form a flower. Its pieces are the sepals) and the corolla (composed of all of the petals), has free pieces and is zygomorphic (single symmetry plane). A much differentiated petal can be seen, it’s the lip. It adopts a different attractive shape and it can own macules (attractive spots for the pollinators). The lip is also adapted to capture the pollinators’ attention and can possess a long prolongation called spur and it has nectar. The flowers may be accompanied by a bract, a modified or specialized leaf.
The flower development is very singular in some orchids. Some flowers are born backwards and when they are maturing the ovary twist 180º to help flower stay in proper position, being the own ovary who acts as a peduncle, linking flower and stem. This kind of flower development is called resupinate. The flowers can be solitary or grouped in inflorescences.
Resupinate development of flowers (Orchis mascula) (Photo taken by Jonathan Billinger).
The orchids are entomophilous, that is, are pollinated by insects. Depending of the specie, the orchid will be pollinated by a type of insect or other. Even so, this relation or form of pollination (the position in which bees, bumblebees and other hymenoptera get to copulate) cannot be used to describe how evolution happened in orchids; this pollination mechanism was used in the past to classify species, but molecular analyses have denied its worth.
One singular characteristic of tropical species is the velamen radicum: a multi-layered coating on the roots that acts as a sponge. In drought periods this coating protects from the drying and doesn’t allow the losing of water. And in rainy periods, this coating is swollen of water, which will be available to roots. Also, as these orchids are epiphytes, are adapted to drought places.
Epiphytic orchid on a tree (Pleione limprichtii) (Photo taken by Adarsh Thakuri)
Orchids live in mutualism with fungus, that is, they establish a relationship in which both organisms are benefited when live together. The orchid seeds need the fungus’ aid to germinate. Many several fungus can stimulate their germination, but Rhizoctonia (Basidiomycota) is predominant. The fungus degrades the seed coat and releases of dormancy period. Then, the seed begins to germinate and emits filaments, underground organs, and establishes an orchid mycorrhizae. The seed dormancy can last 20-30 years without germinating, but it will not be possible without the fungus action.
Within the great diversity of orchids, some flowers of diferent species create such original shapes that they seem animals, such as monkey orchid (Orchis simia), or insects, such as genus Phalaenopsis; their flowers supposedly resemble moths in flight, and that’s why they are known as the moth orchids.
On the left, monkey orchid (Orchis simia) (Photo taken by Ian Capper); On the right, orchids that resemble moths in flight (Phalaenopsis schilleriana) (Photo taken by Amos Oliver Doyle).
The bee orchids (Ophrys), for example, have a specialized lip that can really attract the hymenopterans. It’s because it reminds female shape and colours and it also emits smells which are similar to female pheromones, doing the pollination more effective.
Bee orchid (Ophrys apifera) (Photo taken by Hans Hillewaert).
On the other hand, there are also many curious cases like the Darwin’s orchid (Anagraecum sesquipedale). It’s characterized by its long spur between 25 and 35 cm in length. Darwin guessed it should exist a butterfly that could take the nectar located in the spur and pollinates the flower at the same time. Xanthopan morgani is able and it’s the only one, so it’s one coevolution case.
On the left, Darwin's orchid (Anagraecum sesquipedale)(Photo taken by Michael Wolf); On the right, Xanthopan morgani (Photo taken by Esculapio).
We can also see species with a high ornamental value, being the most of them from Asia and America. For example, the Cattleya genus has one of the highest floral value and it was used extensively for create new varieties. So, Cattleya has become very popular until today. A good example is the easter orchid (Cattleya mossiae), which is also the national flower of Venezuela.
Easter orchid (Cattleya mossiae) (Photo taken by KENPEI).
When we speak of floral value, we can’t forget Rothschild’s slipper orchid (Paphiopedilum rothschildianum). It’s the most expensive orchid in world and it’s considered one of the most expensive flowers, too. Rothschild’s slipper orchid only lives in Mt. Kinabalu, on the island of Borneo, and it’s also one of the rarest orchids in nature of all of the species of Asian Slipper orchids.
Rothschild's Slipper Orchid (Paphiopedilum rothschildianum) (Photo taken by Orchi).
Furthermore, orchids are important in alimentation, being surely Vanilla planifolia the most relevant. It’s native to Mexico and vanilla is obtained of its fruits.
Vanilla (Vanilla planifolia) (Photo taken by Michael Doss).
The following sources have been consulted in the elaboration of this entry:
- Bolòs, J. Vigo, R. M. Masalles & J. M. Ninot. 2005. Flora manual dels Països catalans. 3ed. Pòrtic Natura, Barcelona: pp. 1310.
- Phanerogamae notes, Degree of Environmental Biology, UAB.
In conclusion, orchids are important in different aspects and that’s why a biggest knowledge of their diversity and biology is necessary. If you liked this article, wouldn’t forget to share it. Thanks for your interest.