Orchids All Around Us

Crazy fact: Nearly one of every ten species of flowering plants is an orchid. Current tallies have about 28,000 species of orchids (with many, many more hybrids and cultivars), which is twice as many bird species and four times as many mammal species.

Another fun fact: vanilla is an orchid, one of the few commercially valuable orchids. Aside from vanilla, orchids are used by perfumers to develop fragrances because of their unique smell.

For some reason, I have never much cared for orchids. Something about them looks fake. The tiny hair clips used to train them don’t help. But then I learned that there are far more orchids than I ever imagined and that they grow all over the world in almost every habitat, even the Arctic. More on this later. First, we need a little orchid primer.

Orchid Basics

Orchid flowers exhibit bilateral symmetry, meaning they are mirror images if you were to fold them in half. This aids pollination, which is mostly done by male bees and insects. In fact, orchids have a complex cross-pollination scheme and highly specialized pollination mechanisms. Some of them have flowers that mimic female insects to attract their male counterparts for pollination.

The lip or labellum of the orchid is the part that is usually modified to attract and direct (even trap) specific pollinators either through its color, shape (pouch, ruffles), decoration (hairs, fans, tails), or some combination thereof. It provides a landing platform for the pollinator. The column is a fusion of both the male and female parts of the flower into one combined reproductive system, which is characteristic of the orchid and differentiates it from all other flowering plants.

The flowers of the clamshell or cockleshell orchid (Prosthechea cochleata) are unusual in that the labellum forms a “hood” over the column which makes the flower effectively upside down.

Yet another fun fact: Most orchids rely on developing symbiotic relationships with mycorrhizal fungi that provide necessary germination nutrients to the endosperm-absent seeds. Because the chances of finding the fungus is small, the number of seeds produced and blown away is numerous and most of them do not meet the necessary fungal symbiont.

Temperate Orchids

A terrible attempt at photographing the striped coralroot (Corallorhiza striata)!

It was at the Ridges Sanctuary in June 2017 that I experienced a moment of orchid wonder. I was on a walking tour of this extremely unique natural environment and they started talking about all the orchids located there—in fact, up to 25 species that have been reintroduced as part of an orchid restoration project. Until then I had no idea there were orchids beyond the showy fake looking things at botanical greenhouses. This started a seed of interest for me.

Downy rattlesnake plantain (Goodyera pubescens) is easy to find in Wisconsin. Despite its name and appearance it is not a member of the plantain family but rather an orchid and one of the most common ones in North America. It spreads along the ground via stolons and is quite cold hardy. Although it is common in the wild, attempts to grow it in a cultivated setting for its attractive leaf venation often fail to replicate wild conditions.

In contrast to tropical orchids, temperate orchids are usually terrestrial, meaning they grow in the ground, with underground rhizomes and more subtle flowers. There are many temperate orchids that grow across North America and the Northern Hemisphere. There are about 40-50 species of orchids that grow in Wisconsin, including lady slippers, coralroot, and ladies’ tresses as well as some rare, protected species like the eastern prairie white-fringed orchid and the calypso orchid.

Yellow lady slippers in Door County.

Have you ever heard of anything so cute as a floral pouch? Slipper orchids have slipper-shaped pouches (which are modified labella) that trap insects to force pollination. This is just one of the unique pollination mechanisms adapted by orchids. Slipper orchids are typically temperate species across the Northern Hemisphere. Some of them can even withstand extreme cold, blooming as the snow melts.

Pink lady slipper plant in Osceola.

Venus slipper (Paphiopedilum) is a tropical slipper orchid. This is just one of the many orchids that is threatened in the wild due to orchid poachers. The movie Adaptation, based on the novel The Orchid Thief, is a hilarious and creative look at this world as well as a play on the highly adaptive nature of orchid plant morphology. UWM Greenhouse.

Tropical Orchids

This Dendrobium loddigesii orchid enjoys a nice cozy rest in its hanging basket at the UWM Greenhouse. This orchid is from east Asia and tolerates cool and warm tropical environments. Dendrobium is one of the largest genera of orchids.

Most tropical orchid species are epiphytic, meaning they have aerial roots and they absorb humidity and nutrients from water vapor. They grow on top of other plants rather than in the soil. Growing epiphytically allows them to reach the light or nutrients better than if they stayed on the ground. Some orchids are even lithophytes, growing on rocks.

Dendrobium is sought after by orchid lovers and is one of the genera involved in the numerous hybrids and cultivars, such as this Dendrobium Upin Red “Asahi’ which is a cultivar that resulted from crossing the Dendrobium Oberon × Dendrobium Super Star cultivars. UWM Greenhouse.

One reason orchids are so popular is the relative ease of some orchid species at cross pollination, meaning hobbyists can produce a new orchid from two different orchid parents. The most difficult part, however, is germinating the orchid from seeds, which are almost microscopically tiny.

Phalaenopsis James Hausermann orchid⁠ is one of the many orchid cultivars. Phalaenopsis orchids, also known as moth orchids, are some of the most popular potted orchid plants and one of the first tropical orchids favored during the Victorian plant collecting craze. Many Phalaenopsis species are threatened or extinct in the wild.

Laelia rubescens is native to Mexico and Central America where it often grows clinging to trees. Central America is a zone of high orchid diversity, with most orchid species growing in tropical forests. Some orchids, such as the Laelia orchids, can also perform a unique form of photosynthesis (CAM) that allows them to photosynthesize with their pores closed until nighttime, when the pores open to collect carbon dioxide. In this way, they conserve moisture. Photo credit: Paul Engevold.

This necklace orchid (Coelogyne dayana) is native to southeast Asia across Malaysia, Borneo, and Indonesia.⁠ They are popular for their long strings of fragrant flowers. Photo credit: Paul Engevold.
2-Rowed Angraecum (Angraecum distichum) has unique leaves that look braided.
Comet orchids (Angraecum) are mostly from tropical Africa.

Orchids surround us whether we are at an orchid show at a botanical garden or out and about in the wild!

1 comment on “Orchids All Around Us”

  1. Rose Reply

    So now you like orchids. I think it’s funny you thought they looked fake at one time.
    Nice display of photos and types of orchids and wow one in 10 species is in that family!

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