The orchid family is not only the largest but one of the most diverse plant flowering families in the world. The orchid was one of the first plants to evolve on earth, it was around in the time of the dinosaur, over 120 million years ago. Given the length of time they have been around it shouldn’t be surprising that there are over 35,000 species with hundreds of thousands of hybrids.
The most famous orchid in the world is the vanilla orchid (planifolia). Coca Cola is the largest customer of vanilla, they use the seed for flavouring. Madagascar is the world’s largest producer. Orchids are very beautiful plants and that is why so much time and care is put into growing them. Vanilla on the other hand is grown for its commercial value rather than for its appearance but it is labour intensive. The vanilla crop is the main source of income for many independent farmers in less developed countries.
One of the ways in which the orchid is so diverse is its ability to reproduce. Some orchids rely on flying insects, others rely on crawling insects and finally there are orchids that rely on the wind for pollination.
The Bee Orchid attracts bees to its flower by its appearance. It looks like a receptive bee which entices the male bee towards its pollinia. Other orchids have long stems which look as they are butterflies when dancing in the wind.
Some orchids have evolved so that they act as a good platform which attracts a weary insect to land. The nectar brought by the visiting insect brushes with the pollinia. Orchids sometimes have very slippery flowers which often results in the visiting insect falling right into the interior of the flower leaving only one exit point. This escape route forces the welcome intruder into brushing nectar against the pollina.
Charles Darwin wrote about orchids when demonstrating his theory of evolution by natural selection. He made a prediction about the pollination method of one particular orchid, the Angreacum sesquipidales. He predicted that given this particular species emitted a strong scent at night and was white, the insect that pollinated it would be a moth. Darwin was proved right and it is in fact a moth that pollinates the Angreacum sesquipidales.
Popularity of Orchids
Orchids have become immensely popular recently but they have been written about and cultivated for a very long time. Orchids were first written about in 700 B.C. by the Chinese and Japanese. They weren’t, however, first cultivated until around 300 years ago when seeds were bought by traders from around the globe. It was only the wealthy that could cultivate them initially but luckily this pleasure is available to many more people these days. Even with our 300 year cultivating experience, many a gardener has been frustrated by the care needed to grow beautiful orchids but this only adds to their popularity.
– Nigel Howell