January 2013 – Orchids, then and now

By Paul Sanders • January, 2013

The story of orchids is almost like the story of the world. It is big, vast and has many facets. It is larger than the Lopez and Gonzales families combined. It is estimated that there are approximately 35,000 species of orchids in the world. This does not count the sub species and the hybrids.

Orchid flower in San Sebastian del Oeste. Photo by Harvest Estudio

Orchid flower in San Sebastian del Oeste. Photo by Harvest Estudio

Although several species have been discovered within the Artic Circle, most species are found in the tropics. Colombia alone may be home to 3500 species. That is ten percent of the world’s orchid flora. The island of Madagascar comprises only 2 percent of the land mass of continental Africa, yet is has more species of orchids than are found in all the other countries of Africa combined. Many new species are still being discovered all over the world.

Orchids are fascinating to almost everyone, not only because of their beauty, but also because of the incredible diversity found within the family. Some species are not more than 1 inch high (2.5 centimeters), and others grow to more than ten feet (300 centimeters) in height. Some resemble regular plants, while others look like shrubs or even vines. Orchids can be terrestrial (grow in soil) or epiphytic (grow on trees and branches). One species in Australia is subterranean (grows beneath the ground). In western Colombia there is a little orchid that grows just above the waterline on the boulders of the Pacific Ocean, thus becoming almost aquatic.

Orchid plant in San Sebastian del Oeste. Photo by Harvest Estudio

Orchid plant in San Sebastian del Oeste. Photo by Harvest Estudio

The name “orchid” comes from the Greek word for “testicle”. This is derived from the testicular-shaped tubers found on many European species. The first recorded use of the Greek word “orcis” was in the years 372-287 B.C. In ancient Greece it was used for sexual problems. Herbal and medical books of the middle ages are full of references to the medicinal properties of orchids. The Chinese and Japanese were avid gardeners from very early times. The orchid was used for beauty and fragrance, and was also a favorite subject of painters. It had very little importance as a medicinal plant. Confucius referred to orchids as early as 551 B.C. Many Oriental paintings depict the graceful foliage and roots of the plants rather than the flowers. These flowers were well established and appreciated in the Orient long before they were introduced into Europe in about 1700. The first recorded specimen bloomed in England in 1733. The sale of plants to private collectors began about 1800. When a new plant bloomed, it was a media occasion both by newspaper and word of mouth. Orchids were considered oddities. It was thought that they bloomed without soil, and devoured insects in order to produce the striking flowers. The orchid craze hit its peak in England in 1850. They were the center of attention in Victorian conservatories.

Since orchids were known to come from tropical and humid lands, the first cultivation attempts were in airless greenhouses with rotted trees and damp leaves and fronds. It was a long process until they learned that orchids did indeed need air circulation, nourishment and drainage. With these conditions the plants thrived. Some growers started to experiment by putting orchids in wooden or raffia containers, and some in sea shells. By 1900, the orchid boom had hit the U. S., and the race was on.

Orchid plants inside of a house in San Sebastian del Oeste, Photo by Harvest Estudio

Orchid plants inside of a house in San Sebastian del Oeste. Photo by Harvest Estudio

During World War I many fine orchid collections in Europe were destroyed, or perished because of lack of fuel to heat the greenhouses. But in the United States such losses did not occur. The popularity of orchids increased. In the early 1900s, private collections of orchids in the English tradition were becoming very popular. Orchids were starting to compete with roses for corsage flowers. This gives you a small idea of the volume of material it will take to cover this very large subject.

In future articles, we will cover individual species of orchids, how to grow them, and everything you need to know about this amazing plant. You will learn which ones grow best in this area, and which do poorly. Orchids are one of my favorite subjects and I will enjoy researching and learning as much as you will.

This is such a large subject it can not be taken care of in one or a few articles I will try not to get too technical and fill the lines with botanical gibberish. Orchids are an elegant, simple, beautiful plant. The leaves, roots and the flowers are works of art in themselves. Let’s find out more about them so that we can enjoy this entire family of plants. They are just like most large families, some get along together and some just want to be, or should be, left alone.

Happy New Year… Keep your plants up!

Paul Sanders
E-mail: publisher@pvmirror.com

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