These flowering beauties are nothing short of amazing. Here are a few things you probably didn’t know about them...
Largest Family of Flowering Plants: By some estimates, Orchidacea is the largest family of flowering plants, with at least 25,000 to 30,000 species - not including the 100,000 hybrids and cultivars created by horticulturalists that aren’t naturally occurring. Of all flowering plant species on Earth, orchids make up about 10 percent.
New Species: Adding to their already huge repertoire are the 200 to 300 species of orchids discovered every year. They’re mostly discovered in the tropics, where the majority of orchids grow. Because the plant needs to be flowering to identify it as a new species, it’s often very difficult to identify new orchids in the field.
Vanilla: The next time you’re enjoying a vanilla-flavored dessert, you can thank an orchid. Vanilla beans are actually seed pods from orchids in the genus Vanilla, which includes Vanilla planifolia (or Flat-Leaved Vanilla) and V. x tahitensis (a hybrid). These vanilla-producing orchids can only grow 10 to 20 degrees north and south of the equator. Originally from Mexico and Guatemala, but today about 75 percent of vanilla on the market is grown in Madagascar and Réunion. The pods are picked before they’re ripe, submerged in hot water, then dried out for several months.
Smallest Seeds: There are no seeds smaller than an orchid’s. A typical orchid seed is about the same size as a speck of dust, but they range in diameter greatly. The seeds of Anoectochilus imitans measure just 0.05 mm in length, and the lopsided star orchid (Epidendrum secundum) are 6 mm, making them the largest of all orchid seeds. Although small, most orchids produce huge amounts of seeds - millions, in fact.
Many Sizes: You’re probably familiar with the typical houseplant-sized orchid, but they can grow much, much larger. The flowers alone can weigh several hundred pounds, or grow no larger than a dime. Sobralia altissima, for one, can be found growing up to 44 feet tall in Peru. The tiger orchid - or Grammatophyllum speciosum - is the largest type of orchid, with the biggest known weighing in at about 4,000 pounds (and their flower stalks can grow up to six feet long).
Trick Insects: While orchids have both “male” (stamens) and “female” (pistils) organs in each flower, they don’t pollinate themselves, but rely on insects to do so. That’s where the trickery comes in. The reproductive parts of many orchid species mimic the color and shape of certain insects - specifically, those that they need for help with pollination. These reproductive parts of the Oncidium henekenii, for example, look like a female bee. When a male bee comes looking for a mate, it’ll come into contact with pollen, then fly off to distribute it to other orchids. Slipper orchids do something similar; their large, cavernous labellum traps insects that come in looking for nectar, and must then escape through a hole that coats them in pollen.
Everywhere Except Antarctica: While they mostly grow in the tropics, orchids are found all over the world (except icy Antarctica). Colombia boasts the greatest variety of species, with 4,270 different orchids growing within its borders. In North America, 200 different species can be found - including in Alaska, which has 33 of its own native species.
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