The Orchid

Humans, as do many animals and insects, have an innate capacity to find flowers beautiful. This seems to have evolved in us in response to one of the evolved functions of flowers which is to provide information about the plant. Our appreciation of the beauty of flowers may well be innate or instinctive and be an adaptive response to colourful cues in the environment which originally helped primitive hominid species to find sources of food. With experience flowers tell us a lot about the ripeness of a plant’s fruit.

Plants use flowers, the reproductive part of the plant, to attract animals and insects to assist in their reproduction through pollination and the spread of seeds. The flower helps us (and animals and insects) to visually find and identify specific plants in what might otherwise be an indistinguishable sea of greens. Contrasting colours within a flower also help make it more visible to insects and animals. Flowers are often most colourful when they are mature and ready for pollination. Colourful bilateral symmetry in a flower indicates that it is more advanced.

One of the first known nonfood hominid uses of flowers is on a Neanderthal grave, dated at over 60,000 years ago, in the Shanidar Cave in Zagros mountains of Iraq. Pollen analysis revealed that the body of a man had been placed on a bed of flowers. Why is not known but one suggestion is that the perfume given off by the flowers helped to cover the odor of the decomposing corpse.


Orchids are among the most beautiful and renowned of flowering plants. They are members of the family Orchidaceae of which there are three subgroups: a) Orchidoideae b) Cypripediodeae c) Apostasioideae.

They are generally herbaceous perennial plants and it is characteristic that their flower has three petals-one of which is often like a lip. Estimates of the number of different species range from  15,000-30,000 species which is a huge difference! There are also many man- made hybrids. Orchids grow naturally throughout the world everywhere except for the polar regions though four species have been found north of the arctic circle. They range in size from the very small to vines which are over 30 feet in length and some have flowers the size of footballs. Orchids naturally occur in all colours except for black and no one has, to date, been able to produce an orchid with an all-black flower. In temperate climates they tend to grow on the ground. In tropical climates they tend to grow on trees or other plants but they are not parasitic in that they draw no nourishment from the host. These orchids are called epiphytic. Some orchids are lithophytes which means that they grow on rocks. Orchids reproduce by cross-pollination with birds, insects, and other animals carrying pollen from the stamen of one orchid to the pistil of another.  Cross pollination between different plants, rather than self-pollination, has helped orchids evolve and adapt to their environments.

Orchids have evolved some of the most complicated pollination systems of all plants. One of the most famous orchids in the scientific world is the Angraecum sesquipedale of Madagascar. It has long spurs which hold its nectar and when it was described to Darwin he said that there would be an unknown species of insect with a long tongue that would be its pollinator. Though he was ridiculed he turned out to be right as, after his death, its only pollinator was discovered. This is a species of hawk moth with an extremely long tongue later named the Xanthopan Morgani Praedicta moth in honour of his prediction.

Many orchids look like or smell like bees which is what attracts bees to them. Ophrys insectifera emits a chemical mixture that attracts male hymenopteras of the genus Argogorytes. The smell of this orchid smells like females and the male insect tries to have sex with the plant and then particles of pollen attach themselves to the insect to be deposited at its next hot spot. Some parts of orchid plants resemble female insects encouraging male insects to try to mate with them thereby spreading pollen. The mirror orchids of the western Mediterranean also emit a pheromone very similar to that of female bees which sends the male bees into an excited frenzy. Bulbophyllum phalaenopsis (Tie Orchid) has drooping leaves five feet long and its blossoms smell like rotting flesh. A recent specimen featured at the 24th annual New York International Orchid Show was worth $10,000. It originates in Indonesia and the reason it smells like rotting flesh is to attract flies which will then go and carry its pollen to other smelly flowers to help them all reproduce. The Cattleya orchid is favoured in corsages. Apparently, its discovery was accidental. English explorers and naturalists who were returning from South America with exotic plants packed the then non-flowering cattleya as padding for these other plants. Some of them bloomed after the voyage into gorgeous lavendar flowers. The gardener of the horticulturalist, William Cattley, found the cattleyas in the packing material.

Another orchid, the dead horse arum, also emits a smell similar to that of rotting flesh in order to attract flies to assist in its pollination.

Another orchid species, the oncidiums of South America, attract bees by a process botanists call pseudoantagonism. That is, parts of the plant resemble an enemy insect and the bee attacks it to try and drive it away. During the assault pollen adheres to the attacking bee!

Orchids are not merely just attractive to look at.  The cooking flavouring vanilla comes from several species of vanilla orchid which grows throughout the tropics.  Many orchids are used in folk or herbal remedies for ailments such as fish poisoning to boils.

All orchids have two names. The first name is called the genus name and refers to the large subfamily within the Orchidaceae which a particular species belongs to. The second name refers to the particular species.

Growing orchids used to be just for the very rich. Wealthy collectors sent their orchid hunters to all corners of the globe in the search for rare or interesting species. Nowadays, with modern techniques, the owning and cultivation of orchids is now within the reach of most with prices ranging from a few dollars/pounds to thousands depending upon the rarity of the specimen. Orchids are now cloned by orchid breeders who take a few cells from root tips and grow them in specially prepared laboratory conditions. This practice has been somewhat helpful in conserving orchids in the wild. The cultivation of and international trade in orchids is incredible with estimates up to $10,000,000,000. The easiest to grow at home are the phalaenopsis (moth orchid) or the paphiopedilum (lady’s slipper). Orchids are very long-lived and many plants found and transported by orchid hunters in the nineteenth century are still alive today.

Orchid Mania

Almost like no other plant orchids have captured the imagination of people by their beauty and diversity. Orchid lovers can be obsessed with or addicted to their interest almost to the exclusion of everything else.

Orchids are very sexy plants. They often look sexy. The name comes from orchis which is the Greek word for testicle. They smell sexy. The ways in which they are pollinated are often sexy. Imagine-imitating a female bee in order to induce a male bee to copulate with a plant!

Leaving strict monetary considerations aside, from a psychological point of view one of the key elements in ‘orchid mania’ is probably acquiring the unique ownership, possession and control of something which epitomizes the conflict in our feelings between both the beauty and dangers of Mother Nature. The possession of a rare or beautiful plant leads to feelings of high status and exclusiveness. “I have it, you don’t.” Feelings of exclusion, jealousy, and envy are pushed into others who unconsciously represent the sibling rivals of infancy and childhood. If something is controlled there is also less anxiety about its potential hidden dangers. As well, controlling the breeding of orchids probably unconsciously means controlling the sexual life of the parents, particularly the mother.

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