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DENDROBIUM laevifolium.

DENDROBIUM laevifolium.

Dendrochilum wenzelii 'Jeff's Red Wheat' CDC/HOS

Dendrochilum wenzelii
'Jeff's Red Wheat'
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LAELIA alaorii.

LAELIA alaorii.

 Why Grow Orchid Species?
by Jeffrey Parker (2002-06-01)

When I first started collecting orchid species, it seemed like the hardest thing to find out anything about the species. But it turns out that more has been written about orchid species than any other group of plants on earth. Before long, I found myself being constantly amazed by each new plant or tid-bit of information.

Orchids and the study of orchids are at the very top of the botanical sciences. Orchids are the largest plant family on earth. Estimates suggest that there are around 30,000 species. This means, that one out of every ten plants on earth is an orchid! There are actually many more than the 30,000 different orchids, if you look at all the different color forms and varieties. In fact, in many species, every individual plant is unique. A good example of this would be Cattleya lueddemanniana. On the other hand some species are said to never vary, an example being Laelia lundii.

Orchids have an incredible diversification of plant form. Some are tiny, with flowers the size of a pencil-tip, others are enormous weighing up to two tons! They can be found at elevations up to 11,000 ft. in the Andes and Himalayas, and down to sea level. There is even a species, Rhizanthella gardneri in Australia, that spends its entire life underground! Almost every region of the planet contains orchids, "given their success in adapting to and colonizing almost every niche on land." (Pridgeon, 1992) Some species flower within the Arctic Circle, while others grow on islands 1000 miles from Antarctica.

"In the tropics, orchids are distributed differently according to elevation. Diversity is greatest in montane cloud forests from about 3000' to 6000' elevation. The great orchid explorer G.C.K. Dunsterville once found 47 different species growing in a single tree!" (Adapted from Pridgeon) All orchids in the temperate zones grow in the ground. One first encounters epiphytes (or plants that grow in trees) around the latitude of the Florida Everglades. As you go farther south the quantity of epiphytic species increases until finally at the equator, are the richest forests. Here, the epiphytes have a mass greater than the mass of the trees they are growing on!

Actually, all plant life increases near the equator. There is an island in the Panama Canal owned by the Smithsonian Institute called Barro Colorado. It's a small island, you can walk around it in a few hours. Barro Colorado has more tree species than all of North America above Mexico combined with those of all of Western Europe.

Charles Darwin said that the various contrivances and adaptations of orchids "vastly transcend those which the most fertile imagination of the world's most imaginative man could dream up with unlimited time at his disposal!"

"The extreme specialization of structure and dependence entirely on the visits of particular insects, is more developed in orchids, than any other family of plants." (Seidenfaden,Wood, 1992) Orchids have developed many tricks and traps for the manipulation and attraction of their pollinators. For example, Calaway Dodson gives an unusual example of mimetization (mimicry) and interdependence: The flowers of Brassia arcuigera mimic (or pretend to be) large spiders in order to attract the pollinator, a wasp. The wasps (called "spider hunters" or "tarantula hawks") attack the orchid flower mistaking it for prey. (This particular wasp likes to lay its eggs in recently-killed spiders!) In the process of stinging the flower, the pollen is deposited on the stigma, completing the pollination. But sometimes, there is an actual little crab spider that mimics the color and markings of the Brassia flower, hiding on the lip waiting to easily grab the wasp!

Or there is the famous set of photographs of Dracula chestertonii. The lip structure of many Draculas mimic mushrooms or other fungi. The first photo shows a closeup of D. chestertonii. Alongside this picture is another of the mushroom that grows on the same tree as the Dracula. The lip of the orchid is exactly the same as the mushroom! How in heck was the orchid able to evolve itself to look exactly like the mushroom, in order to attract the fungi's fly pollinator?

My asscociates attended a big orchid conference held in Quito, Ecuador in 1994. One by one, the best known scientists and taxonomists working out in the field took to the speakers' podium to decry the alarming increase in the deforestation rate and the failure of the various government entities to get a handle on the problem.

The top authority on Ecuadorean Orchids, Calaway Dodson, pointed out that while the government has set aside a few reserves, natural populations of many orchid species require extensive stands of undisturbed forest for reproductive success, so the future of the orchids of Ecuador appears grim. (While orchids may be able to exist in small habitats, their pollinators often tend to be wide-ranging.) In the early 1960's, Dodson purchased around 100 hectares of virgin rainforest, a rich orchid habitat. This became the Rio Palanque Science Center. My understanding is, that today, the Center has the only remaining forests still standing in that locale.

We have been receiving correspondence from a biologist living and working in Colombia. Here is a quote from our friend: "During a recent survey on the orchid flora of the southern Andes in Narino, we found that a mature, pristine montane forest (2800-3000 meters elev.) contains between 90,000 and 130,000 orchid plants per hectare, in fourteen genera, including Odontoglossum and Masdevallia. These forests are dominated by huge Clusia multiflora trees, with mangrove-like roots, some of them completely covered by Masdevallia plants. These forests are being destroyed very fast by local peasants to make charcoal for the local chicken roasteries. They believe Clusia makes the best charcoal. They make 250 bags of charcoal from a hectare, and receive less than two dollars per bag, Orchids and all other species are left to rot and the place looks like a battlefield afterwards. One does not know if to cry or become mad. Fortunately we have been able to set up about 40 private reserves in this area."

"There is a lot more at risk from tropical deforestation than just trees. The stakes are high, and the consequences are likely to affect people throughout the world. Species extinction means throwing away invaluable and often unknown genetic reserves, destabilizing other ecosystems, shrinking the world's biological capital assets and abandoning any possible future use of rainforest resources in farming, medicine, or industry." (Chris C. Park, 1992)

I try to get my customers and friends to switch their orchid activities from a "hobby" to a "scientific pursuit" by studying, collecting and growing orchid species. People maintaining orchid species in their collections will be preserving valuable genetic material as well as making new observations and mini-discoveries of their own. Orchids really are the top plants on our planet, they represent powerful symbols of something bigger; the wonder and diversity, and precariousness of our entire natural world.


(From a lecture/slide show)

Copyright 1998 All Rights Reserved.
A Sense of Place 
A Visit to Panama 
The Stanhopeinae of Tropical Orchid Farm 
News From Tropical Orchid Farm 
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PSYCHILIS macconnelliae.

PSYCHILIS macconnelliae.




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