About a year ago, I was put in charge of five orchid plants, with one sentence of instruction: Don’t overwater them. One was moribund at the point of transfer, and soon perished. The survivors don’t look great, but they’re still alive, and two of them have even flowered. Caring for orchids is new territory to me. Like everything else I encounter, I wondered, “Where do those things come from?” It seems they grow just about everywhere, with the exception of Antarctica. They are wildly diverse—25,000 species occur naturally and tens of thousands more have been hybridized. Tropical orchids number 10,000, but because those areas are so species-rich, it is thought there are many more yet to be discovered. Coming in every color but black, they also have a wide variety of color combinations on the same flower. Individual flower sizes vary from less than an inch across, to those with thirty-inch petals. Some have displays of small flowers, up to 14 feet long. Variety seems to be their strong suit and they represent the biggest family in the plant kingdom. Orchidaceae comprises nearly 10% of all known plants.
Though 90% of orchids are tropical, they grow naturally in almost any environment short of deserts and tundra. Many of the tropical species are epiphytic, meaning they do not root in the ground, but live on trees, drawing water from where it collects in the crooks of limbs, or in moss, or straight out of the air. European cultures knew their own wild orchids, but as explorers and traders travelled to the Far East in the 1700s, they brought back fantastic varieties from China and Japan, where healers had been using them to treat coughs and lung diseases as far back as 700 BC. Even then, orchids had been around for a long time. Paleobotanists trace their earliest forms back 120 million years, before Europe and China were even in the physical shape we know them by today. They really caught on during the 1800s in England, France, and other wealthy European countries, sparking the so-called “orchidelerium,” reminiscent of Holland’s tulip obsession in the 16th century. Far-flung exploration, fanatic collecting, and a wildly overinflated market resulted.
The name “orchid” comes from the Greek “orkhis” which refers to a part of the male anatomy that won’t be named in this family-oriented venue, but those body parts are indeed oriented toward making a family. The reference is to the shape of the bulbs they grow from. Because of this connection, orchids have been touted as aphrodisiacs as well as cures, but most people just admire their fantastic colors and shapes. Orchids themselves use some clever sexual inducements to insure their continued survival. The very shape of the flowers of some species is like that of the female bodies of some kinds of wasps. Even human eyes can detect this similar form. Male wasps are drawn in by a fake pheromone also produced by the orchid, and wasp eyes see color patterns on the flower that look exactly like the female anatomy of their own species. What is called “pseudocopulation” ensues, and while the male wasp doesn’t impregnate the flower, he carries off pollen on his body that he will unwittingly deposit on the next orchid that seduces him. This ingenious trick is used by a number of orchid species, each on a particular species of bee, wasp, gnat, or fly. The ruse is harmless to the insects, but crucial for the plant.
You may be surprised to hear that one of the most common flavors of ice cream and a thousand other treats comes from an orchid. Vanilla planifolia is the Latin name of a pod- or bean-producing orchid from which we get the famous flavor. Widely cultivated for food production, the plants are a native of Central American forests. Now most frequently sourced from the islands of Madagascar and Reunion, they require hand-pollination, and this labor-intensive process accounts for the high price of actual vanilla beans. Vanilla extract is made from mashed vanilla bean soaked in water or alchohol and is more affordable.
Being generally tricky to cultivate, especially when trying to raise tropical species in chillier climates, orchids have been seen as a flower for the dedicated gardener or greenhouse enthusiast. Orchids were formerly fairly expensive, and some still are, but production of orchid plants by commercial nurseries is so voluminous now that many orchids are reasonably priced. Black-thumb plant failure merely calls for a return trip to the nursery or Trader Joe’s in order to pick up another. Orchids may be taken a little more for granted than in the past, but their geographic origins, natural history, and contribution to our health and sensory delight make them truly remarkable plants.