These mysterious flowers are native to virtually every corner of the earth, except for Antarctica. They thrive in a variety of environments, including tropical rainforests, grasslands, high mountains and bogs. Three Australian species even grow underground! Various species are found on trees (epiphytic), rocks (lithophytic) or on the ground (terrestrial). Contrary to popular belief, orchids are not parasites. They grow ON trees, but do not feed from them.
Orchids are very industrious plants. What they lack in internal resources they obtain from elsewhere. Certain orchids that prefer acidic conditions entice ants (who produce formic acid as a defense mechanism) to live on them to create a desired environment.
Darwin was one of the first to challenge the notion that orchids evolved to please humans. He proposed, alternatively, that they evolved to suit their pollinators, namely insects. They are skilled at attracting a variety of pollinators, by use of smell or mimicry, and in some cases even using stealth. Many orchids are designed to look like the mate of a pollinator.
Case in point: When male bees attempt to mate with a bee orchid (disguised as a female bee), the male becomes the unwitting carrier of pollen, and will deposit this pollen on his next amorous flight of fancy. Other orchid Other species use this same technique with their long flower stems that dance in the breeze and display a remarkable resemblance to butterflies.
| Ascocenda Princess Mikasa Sapphire / Plant Family: Orchidaceae / Genus and Species: Ascocenda hybrid |
Ethnobotanical Facts:This lovely orchid is the extraordinarily successful hybrid of Ascocentrum and Vanda genuses. The lateral fanned foliage is typical of the Vanda genus. The reason for its immense popularity is apparent at first sight. Catch a glimpse of the vibrant tessellated, or mosaic pattern, of the blue/indigo coloration of the flowers blooming along the 10-13" stalk. As an extra bonus, this plant is more often in bloom than not, and is stocked by many nurseries.
Observe: The interesting tessellated patterns formed on the full-bodied flower petals.
Native: Hybrids are not native to any location because they are created by mixing the qualities of different orchids.
|Bakery Orchid, Hay-Scented Orchid / Plant Family: Orchidaceae / Genus and Species: Dendrochilum glumaceum |
Ethnobotanical Facts: This beautiful orchid has two-ranked, tiny, yellowish-white flowers with orange lips in pendulous spikes that smell like sweet hay or fresh baked bread, thus the name. The fragrance has been termed exquisite by some orchid lovers.
Observe: If not in bloom, this orchid could be mistaken for slightly large leaved grass. This orchid is in a group of orchids known as the Gold-chained Orchid. If in bloom, can you tell why it is considered part of this group?
|Cockle-shell (Clamshell) Orchid / Plant Family: Orchidaceae / Genus and Species: Encyclia cochleata |
Ethnobotanical Facts: The Encyclia requires no soil to grow. In nature, this jewel of an orchid typically grows on trees, one or two meters above the high water mark in swamps where there is a constant supply of standing water. Most have only one anther, or pollen- bearing part. However in Florida, where the species is endangered they are of a variation known as triandra, meaning three anthers. This has led some taxonomists to conclude that all Encyclias cochleata in Florida may have descended from a single plant, whose tiny seed may have been transported by a storm or bird!
Observe: The lightly twisted, vivid lime-green sepals, or outer part of the flower, that surround the contrasting deep purple lip of the flower. What sea creature does this flower remind you of?
Native: Southern Florida, Mexico, West Indies, Columbia, Venezuela, and Central America
|Fiery Reed Orchid / Plant Family: Orchidaceae / Genus and Species: Epidendrun ibaguense |
Ethnobotanical Facts: As with many orchids, the Fiery Reed can withstand a wide range of environmental factors. This species, for example, can withstand temperatures down to 0º C. Members of this genus can also grow attached to rock faces.
Observe: The species grows in clumps of arching branches called canes. (Canes refer to the entire length of the stem when it is evenly swollen.) Extending from these clumps are distinctive flowering spikes with up to 50 flowers to a stem. These small flowers, 1 ¼" range from reddish yellow to purple. Only about 20 flowers are open at a time, so the plant continuously flowers for a period of time.
Native: Mexico south through Central America to Columbia, Venezuela and as far south as Peru. Some are native to the United States.
|Lady of the Night / Plant Family: Orchidaceae / Genus and Species: Brassavola nodosa |
Ethnobotanical Facts: A warm growing species, Brassavola can adapt to many different climates. Plants grow in clumps rather than singularly. They spread by rhizomes, a root-like stem that produces roots below ground and sends up new growth shoots. Flowers are long lasting. Brassavola nodosa is known as "Lady of the Night" because of its strong fragrance especially apparent at night.
Observe: Tubular shaped petals that are wide at the base come to a point as the petal unfolds. Petals range in color from yellow to pale green to white.
Native: Mexico and the West Indes to Venezuela and Peru
|Moth Orchid / Plant Family: Orchidaceae / Genus and Species: Phalaenopsis hybrids |
Ethnobotanical Facts: Moth orchids are named for their butterfly/moth-shaped flowers. They are epiphytes, plants which grow above the ground surface, using other plants or objects for support, thus their major sources of water are dew, moisture in the air, and rainwater running down the support plant. The primary use of these orchids is ornamental; growers create hybrids, mixing the best qualities of different orchids. They are well suited to home orchid growing because they are easy to keep and the flowers can bloom for up to four months.
Observe: Do you think the flower looks like a butterfly or moth?
Native: Phalaenopsis orchids are native to Asia and Australia, however hybrids are not native to any location because they are created by mixing the qualities of different orchids.
|Oncidium 'Sharry Baby' / Plant Family: Orchidaceae / Genus and Species: Oncidium |
Ethnobotanical Facts: This orchid is a hybrid of two different Oncidium orchids 'Jamie Sutton' and 'Honolulu'. Its blooms are fuschia and white and grow in spikes (more than one flower on a stem). Oncidium 'Sharry Baby' is also known as the "chocolate lover's orchid" because of its chocolate scent when blooming. This orchid matures quickly and can produce 300 blooms when mature.
Observe: The aloe like leaves with black speckles that grow on pseudobulbs.
Native: Oncidiums may originate anywhere from sea level in the tropics to the high elevations of the Andes, however hybrids are not native to any location because they are created by mixing the qualities of different orchids.
|Orchidaceae - Cymbidium hybrids / Plant Family: Orchidaceae / Genus and Species: Cymbidium hybrids |
Ethnobotanical Facts: When you see orchids in cut-flower arrangements they are most likely from this genus. There are over 50 species in the wild but only a half dozen or so were used to create hybrids now in cultivation. This is one of the few orchid species where more people grow hybrids than pure species. The thick-petaled, waxy flowers can span up to 5 inches across, remain beautiful for 8 weeks, and come in just about every color of the rainbow.
Observe: Cymba means "boat" in Latin, hence their name. Any guess which part people thought resembled a boat?
Native: Cymbidium orchids are native to Himalayas, Myanmar, and Thailand, however hybrids are not native to any location because they are created by mixing the qualities of different orchids.
|Orchidaceae - Schomburgkia superbiens / Plant Family: Orchidaceae / Genus and species: Schomburgkia superbiens (formerly Laelia superbiens) |
Ethnobotanical Facts: This orchid has very long flowering spikes--over 1 meter long! Numerous showy purple flowers with long narrow petals emerge at once. They can be up to 10 cm across and often have yellow centers. It is popular with serious growers but not amateurs, perhaps because if its size. Some albino varieties fetch a handsome price.
Observe: If our specimen is in bloom, you will see how long the spikes are. Also, the aerial roots have a whitish covering, called the vellum, which is actually several layers of dead epidermal tissue. The vellum readily absorbs moisture and then looks clear, allowing the green cells beneath it to be more visible. When the roots absorb water in this way, growers say the roots are "opening" even though nothing really opens.
Native: Central America from Mexico to the foothills of Guatemala
|Orchidaceae - Vanda rothschildiana / Plant Family: Orchidaceae / Genus and Species: Vanda rothschildiana |
Ethnobotanical Facts: This plant is a hybrid of two different orchids, Vanda coerulea (a species with light blue flowers) and Vanda sanderiana (also known as waling-waling, it belongs to the Vanda subgenus Euanthe). The waling-waling is a common parent stock used in developing orchid hybrids. Orchids hybridize widely in nature, in addition, during the last 150 years humans have cultivated them to produce over 110,000 hybrids (called grexes). Each year over 3,000 new hybrids are added to The International Orchid Register. The Vanda rothschildiana was registered in 1931.
Observe: The tessellated, or mosaic, blue patterns on the flower petals.
Native: Not native to any location because it was created by mixing two different orchids; Vanda coerulea native to Burma and Vanda sanderiana native to the Phillippines.
|Sobralia / Plant Family: Orchidaceae / Genus and Species: Sobralia macrantha |
Ethnobotanical Facts: The blooms of this orchid are notoriously short-lived, opening for about a day before withering. For this reason it has not won many awards. Its blooms release the fragrance of vanilla and chocolate. This plant is named in honour of Don F. M. Sobral, a Spanish botanist. This species was discovered in 1841 by Count Karwinsky near Oaxaca, Mexico and later near the Hacienda de la Laguna by C.J. Schiede.
Observe: The narrow stems are reminiscent of bamboo.
Native: Mexico, Central and South America
|Sulawesi Bulbophylllum / Plant Family: Orchidaceae / Genus and Species: Bulbophyllum sulawesi |
Ethnobotanical Facts: Bulbophyllum is probably the largest genus of orchids. They are epiphytic in nature—the Sulawesi blooms on horizontal tree branches. The orchid flower has the appearance of a large insect. Because the flower is hinged at the base, it dances and bobs in the wind. Many Bulbophyllum possess a strong fragrance.
Observe: The very long and slender tubular petals. Stalks may have many flowers on them causing blooms to be well above the leaves.
Native: The island of Sulawesi in Indonesia
Orchids have been cultivated by many cultures for centuries.
The Chinese were one of the first ancient cultures that believed in the great healing powers of orchids--orchid roots were often prescribed as miracle cures for a number of illnesses. Ancient Greeks believed that elixirs made from orchid roots had aphrodisiac qualities, and provided cures for a variety of reproductive problems. In Japan, Samurai warriors grew orchids, which were a sign of a bravery, prowess and training. India produced Salep, a nutritious drink made from the roots of various orchid species, in the 1800s. In the 18th and 19th centuries, many orchid species became extinct as a result of orchid hunting for profit.
Today's vanilla flavoring is derived from the seed pods of Vanilla planifolia, a slender, green-stemmed orchid. It was first discovered by the Aztecs in Mexico. This is one of the few species of orchids that produces anything edible in modern society. A specimen of Vanilla planifolia lives here at the conservatory.
The Conservatory Education Committee designed, researched, and photographed this orchid plant tour in 2005.
Adriene L. Brown, Tacoma Community College
Megan Fish, University of Puget Sound
Carson Grieve, Midland Elementary
Sue Habeck, Tacoma Community College
Kathy Heimann, Blix Elementary
Tod Lokey, School of the Arts
Amy Ryken, University of Puget Sound
Kathie Stork, Geiger Elementary
Lila Transue, Bellarmine Preparatory
Adriene L. Brown, Tacoma Community College
Amy Ryken, University of Puget Sound
Megan Fish, University of Puget Sound