Sunday, March 17, 2013

Apple #629: Orchids

This week I went to a botanical garden in my neighborhood, and they were having a display of orchids. I've never cared much about orchids one way or another, but seeing so many of them arranged so beautifully, I was awed.  That many orchids all in one place also made the greenhouses smell beautiful.

So I thought I'd share with you some photos I took of these lovely flowers.  I wish I could share their fragrance with you too.  I can't do that, but I will of course sprinkle in some facts along with the photos.

One variety of Phalaenopsis (moth orchid).  These are most often for sale in grocery and big box stores, and they're said to be one of the easiest orchids to grow.
(Photo by the Apple Lady)

  • Orchids are among the oldest living plants in the world. 
  • They are at least as old as the dinosaurs (Mesozoic era, or 251 million years ago), but recent research suggests they may be even older than that.
  • Orchids are one of the largest and most diverse family of plants: Orchidaceae.  Some 925 genera are classified as belonging to the orchid family.  These 925 genera include 27,135 individual species. (Actually, they've identified 69,900 species names, but a lot of those are synonyms.) 
  • They are native to nearly every climate on earth, except for very dry deserts and in Antarctica. 
  • Because of the incredible array of plants that are classified as "orchids," generalizing about them is pretty difficult.

Cymbidium, maybe?
(Photo by the Apple Lady)

  • Even sorting out the name of an orchid can be difficult.  Within specific species, orchid-lovers have created tons of hybrids. Each of those hybrids are given names, and if the hybrid has won an award, the acronym for the society that awarded the prize is tacked on.
  • For example, you might see an orchid called Paph. Olivia "Lorelei," HCC/AOS.  That means it belongs to the genera Pahiopedilum (abbreviated Paph.), and it was a hybrid named after its mixer,  Olivia. Since the cross was first grown, some exceptional cultivars have been noted, and those were given the name "Lorelei," and they were awarded the Highly Commended Certificate (HCC) by the American Orchid Society (AOS).  Put it all together, and you get Paph. Olivia "Lorelei," HCC/AOS. Rolls right off the tongue.
  • Since very few of the orchids that I saw had name plates nearby, I can't be sure of the names of most of the orchids in my photos.  I'll try to make a guess about the genera, but that's the best I can do.
  • If you recognize any of these orchids and know their full names, please let me know in the comments.

Miltoniopsis, I think. My sources say this genera used to be much more popular than they are now.
(Photo by the Apple Lady)

  • Orchids range in size from the smallest--Platyestele stenostachaya, which can fit on a dime, on the nose of President Roosevelt pictured there -- to the largest, Cattleya gigas, whose flowers can grow to be as large as 11 inches across.
  • The Aztecs first cultivated the seed pods of the vanilla plant for flavoring.  
  • Vanilla remains the only type of orchid cultivated for a commercial crop.  It is the most labor-intensive crop in the world.

Another Miltoniopsis, I'm guessing. They look like they have faces like Chinese dragons. Or like how pansies seem to have faces.
(Photo by the Apple Lady)

  • Orchids reproduce using a vast variety of methods that depend on their environment.  Speaking as generally as possible, though, their pollen is not like the easily-distributable dusty granules that other flowers have.  
  • Many types of orchids have a little packet or pouch filled with pollen, and they depend on an insect or sometimes even mice or other animals to pick up the pouch and carry it with them.
  • One Chinese orchid grows flowers that are particularly attractive to mice. When a mouse comes to nibble on the petals, it picks up the pollen pouch and takes it off to the next plant.
  • Some orchids reek like rotting meat, which attracts maggots, and they carry away the pollen.
  • Slipper orchids have a cup-like protrusion which invites insects in.  Little hairs discourage the insect from backing out the way it came in but instead going forward into the flower where it comes in contact with the pouch and then carries it off with them.
  • Another type of orchid fires its ball of pollen at bees as they pass by.
  • Those pollen packets pack a punch -- one pouch can contain as many as 3 million very tiny seeds.

This is one of the more bizarre kinds of orchids that I saw.  The plant is that froth of greenish-white skinny leaves at the left, and its blossom is sprouting on that great long stem, though the flower has not yet bloomed.  It's sort of glued to that cable that's running vertically at the left, and it looks like it's pretty much subsisting on the air. These are Tillandsias.
(Photo by the Apple Lady)

  • Even after they go through all that effort to pollinate, often their seeds don't germinate.  This is because most need their tiny seeds to interact with very specific types of fungus in order for the seed to sprout.  It's not often that that combination happens just right.
  • Perhaps because pollination and germination are such a tricky businesses, orchids have also developed the ability for survive for many years without reproducing. 
  • Many orchids won't even flower for the first 5 to 7 years after germination.
  • I think it's safe to say that orchids know how to be patient.  They've been on this planet long enough, they seem to be pretty good at it.

More Cymbidium, I think.
(Photo by the Apple Lady)

  • Botanist William Cattley received a package from Rio de Janeiro, and in it were orchids used as packing material.  Cattley kept one and nurtured it and when it eventually bloomed, he named it the Cattleya.  That was in 1818.
  • (By the way, Cattleya is pronounced CAT-lee-ah. Or, depending on your nationality, cat-LEE-ah.)
  • Within a few decades, orchid mania had swept through Europe.  People were going off to the tropics and scooping up orchids left and right for their growing pleasure back home.  As a result, several species were very quickly endangered and nearly wiped out.  
  • Over half of the orchids shipped to Europe died in transit.
  • Prices skyrocketed, and orchid-growing became known as the pursuit of the very wealthy.  As orchids became harder to find, prices only went higher, which only stoked the fires of those passionate, well-to-do orchid-growers.
  • It took World War I to put the brakes on the practice of rampant orchid-hunting.  Although many orchids had been taken from their native habitats, and even though the War destroyed many greenhouses that held rare orchids, many hybrids did manage to survive.  And some of the species that had been picked to near extinction in the tropics began to thrive again.

This looks like a Phalaenopsis, but I remember what this one was called: the Banana Panda orchid.  I laughed out loud when I saw the sign.  It's a type of Dendrobium.
(Photo by the Apple Lady)

  • Nero Wolfe, a detective in Rex Stout novels, was very much into the orchid-growing.  So was the bad guy in that movie with Mr. Tibbs. In the Heat of the Night.
  • The word orchid comes from a Greek word meaning testicle.  This isn't because of anything to do with the flowers, but rather because the bulbs at the end of the roots of one particular orchid looked a lot like a pair of dangling testicles.

Another type of Dendrobium, I think. Apparently Dendrobia and Phalaenopsis are often confused.
(Photo by the Apple Lady)

  • Today, orchids are among the most popular houseplant, more popular even than African violets, poinsettias, and chrysanthemums.
  • For a long time, Cattleya orchids were known as the corsage flower.  This was because growers in the 1920s developed a method for raising large numbers of this particular genera, so they were widely available.
  • Funny thing, though.  I don't think there was a single Cattleya in the exhibit I attended.  Though I could very easily be wrong about that. 
  • I'm going to stop talking for a while now and let you just look at a few pictures.

A white Phalaenopsis (moth orchid).
(Photo by the Apple Lady)

I like how the petals of these (Cymbidium?) are translucent.
(Photo by the Apple Lady)

All the variations in color and size and display were endlessly fascinating.
(Photo by the Apple Lady)

This was another unusual one.  I'm almost positive the nameplate for this one said Hawaiian Holly. It might be one of a group called Intergenerics.  These are orchids that have been crossed and re-crossed so many times, unusual flower shapes result.
(Photo by the Apple Lady)

Another Phalaenopsis. I think.

(Photo by the Apple Lady)

  • New orchid species are still being discovered, some 200 to 300 species per year.  This doesn't mean new hybrids, but species growing in the wild.
  • It is believed that there are still an estimated 5,000 species that have not yet been identified.
  • There is an orchid called the Black Orchid, but the flower isn't actually black.  It's more of a greenish-brown.  It's also known as the Wild Banana Orchid (Cymbidium caniculatum).
  • There is no naturally-occurring black or blue orchid -- as far as we know. Maybe in another few years, someone will discover one.

I think this is a Phalaenopsis, too.  I thought those striations were really cool.  Wonderful plants, aren't they?
(Photo by the Apple Lady)

Related entry: Vanilla beans

The Plant List, Orchidaceae
The North of England Orchid Society, Orchids for Beginners
American Orchid Society, Basics of Orchid Names, Colombian-Type Miltonia (Miltoniopsis) Culture
Orchid Geeks, Orchid Photo Identification Guide
Oregon Orchid Society, Orchid History and Orchid Pollination
White River Gardens, Just the Facts about Orchids
Fairchild Tropical Botanical Garden, Interesting Orchid Facts
BBC Nature, Orchidaceae
Kew Gardens, Orchid Discovery
Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden, Miscellaneous Orchid Info and Fun Facts
Orchid-Flower-Care, Orchid Identification, Orchid Identification


  1. I just shared the link to this site, and thank you for being here, it makes me think of more of my mom's "Apple a day" phrase which she still uses after all these years.

  2. Aw, thank you! I'm so pleased to be the source of a good association -- at least I'm hoping it's a good one. And thank you for sharing the link!


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