If you ask people what the most beautiful individual flowers are, chances are they will say orchids.
But which one? Orchids comprise the largest botanical family of all. There are more than 500 genera and nearly 30,000 recorded species. They are found wild in almost all climates from cold high mountains to low steamy jungle. Most are epiphytes (plants that grow with aerial roots on other plants such as trees) but some grow on the ground; there are swamp orchids, rock orchids, tree orchids and orchids that grow in grassland.
There is such a wide variety of orchid species, what do they all have in common that makes them orchids? All orchids are monocot perennial herbs. It is the structure of the orchid flowers that puts them in the orchid family. All orchid flowers have three outer petal-like sepals and three inner true petals which are arranged alternately to give the flower bi-lateral symmetry. Of the three inner petals, usually the lowest, is known as the lip and is usually strangely modified, often in a way to mimic a bee or other insect. Pollinators are often visually attracted by the shape and colours of the lip.
Orchids also have a reproductive system different from other plants. They have a single structure known as the column which acts as both male and female sex organs. It projects from the centre of the flower, often surrounded by the lip petal. The very specialized pollination systems of orchids mean the chances of being pollinated are often low, so orchid flowers can remain unpollinated and very long-lasting as houseplants.
There is a misconception that orchids are difficult to grow, and this may be the case for some. Most cultivated orchids are from tropical or subtropical regions, but some come from cooler climates. The orchids you can purchase from your local garden centre for Mother’s Day, are no more difficult to grow than other houseplants. For example, some of the most beautiful orchids; Phalaenopsis, Paphiopedilums, Odontoglossums and Coelogynes do not require heat and only need to be protected from frost.
The wide variety of orchids has made them a favourite for plant collectors and many orchid clubs and societies exist in New Zealand and around the world including the New Zealand Orchid Society.
Did you know that the collective noun for orchids is a rarity of orchids?