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12 Fascinating Orchid Facts You Should Know

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Orchids are beautiful, mysterious flowers that have captivated people for centuries. As one of the largest flowering plant families with over 25,000 unique species, orchids display an incredible diversity of shapes, sizes, and colors.

I’ve cultivated orchids as houseplants for years and continue to be amazed by these exotic blooms. There’s much more to them than meets the eye! Here I’ll share little-known orchid facts that may surprise even expert growers.

A Brief History of Orchids

Orchids have an ancient history. Fossil evidence shows orchids growing on Earth over 100 million years agoorchid fossil During the 19th century Victorian era, orchid fever known as “orchidelirium” swept England as explorers risked life and limb to discover new exotic varieties. Orchids became associated with luxury, rarity, and prestige.

Nowadays orchids are the top houseplant in the U.S. Modern cultivation techniques make orchids affordable and easier to grow for the average gardener. But they still retain an air of splendor and mystery.

1. Vanilla Flavoring Comes from Orchids

The vanilla orchid produces vanilla pods used to make vanilla flavoring and extracts. In 1841, Edmond Albius developed a quick hand-pollination method still used today that revolutionized vanilla cultivation.

Fun fact: Mexico produces most of the world’s vanilla supply. Madagascar vanilla is considered the highest quality.

Orchids at the National Botanical Gardens

2. Orchids Have Male and Female Plant Parts

Most flowers contain male stamens and female pistils. But orchid flowers normally have both reproductive parts, making pollination easier. Some orchid species even change sex based on environment and energy requirements!

3. Orchids Use Sneaky Tricks and Illusions to Attract Pollinators

To reproduce, orchids need help from insects, birds, and other pollinators. Some species evolved clever ways to attract specific pollinators. Examples include:

  • Mimicking female bee appearance – Bee orchids like Ophrys apifera look and smell like female bees to attract male bees.
  • Faking nectar guides – Many orchids use patterned lips to direct pollinators towards their reproductive parts even when no nectar reward exists.
  • Trapping insects after luring them in to force pollen transfer before release.

Sneaky orchids! But these evolutionary tricks show the incredible interdependence between plants and pollinators.

4. Orchid Seeds Are Microscopic

Orchid seeds are the smallest seeds in the plant kingdom at only a few millimeters wide. Their tiny size helped orchids spread around the globe.

But it also makes them challenging to germinate! That’s why cultivating orchids from seed requires sterile lab conditions. Commercial growers often use seedling flasks.

5. Some Orchids Live Over 100 Years

As slow-growing epiphytes originally growing on trees, orchids are exceptionally long-lived plants. Individual plants may thrive for a century or longer if given proper care based on their variety.

For example, the Brassavola nodosa orchid still blooms after 100 years in cultivation in the Duke of Devonshire’s greenhouse in England. That’s older than most houseplants!

6. Orchids Grow Wild on Every Continent Except Antarctica

Thanks to lightweight wind-dispersed seeds, orchids adapted to almost every non-polar climate on Earth. Different species thrive in rainforests, deserts, prairies, and mountains.

The only continent orchids failed to colonize so far is freezing Antarctica. But researchers found rare native Antarctic hairgrass that survives temperatures down to -30°C, so maybe orchids will adapt there someday!

7. Some Orchids Are Parasites

Most orchids grow epiphytically on trees, absorbing moisture and nutrients from the air. But a few unusual types turned to parasitism, stealing nutrients from fungi and underground plants.

Examples include lady’s slipper orchids and the ghost orchid Dendrophylax lindenii made famous in the book The Orchid Thief. They thrive in nutrient-poor environments like swamps using alternate food sources.

8. Orchids Played a Key Role in Developing Darwin’s Theory of Evolution

Charles Darwin studied an orchid with an 11-inch nectar spur that could only be pollinated by a specific moth with an equally long proboscis. This close symbiotic relationship provided key evidence for natural selection and evolution.

But his beloved orchids and other exotic plants paved the way towards his evolutionary breakthrough.

9. Some Orchids Are Used in Medicine and Cooking

Various cultures use orchids for traditional herbal remedies. For example, salep orchid tubers contain mucilage used to thicken Middle Eastern ice cream drinks.

The Chinese use the Gastrodia elata orchid as a headache remedy. And orchid leaves and roots serve as ingredients in traditional Asian soups and teas.

So in addition to visual enjoyment, orchids provide medicinal, culinary and commercial value to societies worldwide.

10. An Extremely Rare Orchid Was Discovered Thanks to a Sloth

In 2019, biologist Brian Carlson was researching sloths in Costa Rica when he noticed something unusual in sloth poop. The feces contained an intact seed from an unknown type of orchid!

Further investigation revealed over a thousand of these mystery ghost orchids growing high in the forest canopy where sloths live. None of them had roots. Instead, their seeds germinated in sloth dung piles collected in tree hollows.

This bizarre new orchid species was named Gastrodia agnicellus in honor of its symbiotic pollinator and nurturing partner, the three-toed sloth.

11. Orchids Inspired Evolutionary Biology and Cloning Research

Beyond Darwin’s pioneering work, orchids became a model system used to study plant evolution and genetics. Breeders create over 100,000 new hybrids and cultivars per year.

Research on growing orchid embryos in a lab led directly to human IVF technology responsible for over 8 million babies born since 1978. And scientists are now working on cloning rare and endangered orchids to prevent their extinction.

12. Orchid Flowers Always Grow Upside-Down

Here’s a fun fact to end on. As orchids mature, their spike tips bend 180 degrees so the blooms emerge upside-down!

This places the lip petal underneath which functions as a landing platform for pollinators. Some heavy orchids even continue bending from the flower weight into a full loop.

So when you look at an orchid flower and think “that looks upside-down”, your instinct is correct. Enjoy this quirky peek into the orchid’s world!

upside down phalaenopsis orchid flower

An upside-down phalaenopsis orchid flower. Image by Kristine Paulus [CC BY 2.0]


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