Orchids in the Wild

The Early Purple Orchid, Orchis mascula, is a common species with a wide distribution, from North Africa, the Middle East, and up throughout Europe The Early Purple Orchid, Orchis mascula, is a common species with a wide distribution, from North Africa, the Middle East, and up throughout Europe. Photo Dominic Alves

There are thousands upon thousands of different species of orchids, and each one has its own requirements. They flourish in all kinds of habitats, cover numerous geographic locations, and no two are exactly alike. There are currently over 30000 named species, but with plants continually being described, merged, split and redescribed, the total is in continuously changing.

The varied habitats of orchids

The habitats of orchids are quite diverse, and range from the tropics to the Arctic regions, and from sea level to upwards of 12,000 feet. Epiphytic orchids, those that grow in trees, tend to prosper in rainforests, monsoon forests, and mangrove swamps. Epiphytic orchids use the trees that they grow on merely as support. They do not damage the host plant in any way. They have aerial roots that are exposed and hang down. These roots are covered in a spongy material that is able to absorb and hold water, thus nourishing the orchid. Terrestrial orchids, those that grow on the ground and derive their nutrients from the soil like most other plants, can be found near mountain streams, creeks, swamps, coastal lowlands, water meadows, bogs, and at the edge of waterfalls. Epiphytic orchid species are found in tropical, sub-tropical, and in warm and cool rainforests. Terrestrial orchid species are typically located in more temperate regions.

Many epiphytic orchid species live in hugely moist atmospheres, such as cloud forest. The Monteverde cloud forest reserve in Costa Rica boasts 500 species of epiphytic orchid alone Many epiphytic orchid species live in hugely moist atmospheres, such as cloud forest. The Monteverde cloud forest reserve in Costa Rica boasts 500 species of epiphytic orchid alone. Photo Ellie Enking

Wild orchid distribution

The geographical distribution of orchids spans the globe. Orchids can be found in every state in the United States, as well as on every continent except Antarctica. The largest diversity of orchid species are found in the lush, tropical forests of New Guinea, Southeast Asia, and equatorial South America. Different types of orchids grow better in certain geographical locations. The Vanilla species grow in Central and South America, Equatorial Africa, and Southeast Asia, while those belonging to the subgenus Pleurothallis flourish in North Mexico, and South and Central America. Thailand is home to more than 1,000 species of orchids, and Africa boasts 467 different species. Costa Rica has 1,360 species of orchid, and 386 of those species are found nowhere else in the world. Canada is home to approximately 50 species of orchid, and half of those can be found in Alberta alone. 47 different species of orchids grow in the state of Maine, with the “Lady Slipper” being the most well known. California is the home for 32 species of orchids, and in San Francisco “Coast Piperia” and “Ladies Tresses” can be found. 49 species of orchid grow wild in the United Kingdom.

Wild Phalaenopsis orchids

The most popular orchid kept in our homes is perhaps the Phalaenopsis. The 60+ wild Phalaenopsis orchid species are distributed from southern China and Taiwan in the north, down through the Himalayas, Borneo, Thailand, the Phillipines, Malaysia, Indonesia, New Guinea and into tropical north east Australia. There are species that come from in tropical lowland forests, others from cooler regions, with elevations up to 2000m.

What makes an orchid an orchid?

All orchids share a few, distinct characteristics. Orchids all have three petals and three sepals, which are the outer segments. They have very specialized flowers, and a single reproductive structure, which is called the column. The male stamens and the female style fusing together form the column. Orchids also feature a modified third petal, which is referred to as the labellum. The irregular flowers of the orchid are sometimes referred to as zygomorphic, meaning that the flower can be symmetrically divided in one plane only.

Vanilla planifolia is a wonderfully scented Mexican orchid, with short-lived flowers. The seed pods are used to create the vanilla flavoring used in so many foods.
The Bee Orchid, Ophrys apifera attracts bees and similar insects to it's blooms, by having flowers that look like bees. Photo Bernard Dupont
Similarly, moth orchids have large colorful 'moth-like' flowers, that really stand out in the green of a forest. credit

Natural adaptations of orchids

Like all flowering plants, orchids need insects to visit their blooms in order to enable pollination. The common name for one of the most commonly seen orchids in our homes, Phalaenopsis, is the Moth Orchid. It's large 'moth-like' blooms are very colorful, and naturally encourage insects to visit. Another orchid using this technique is the Bee Orchid. The picture shows a Bee orchid Ophrys apifera, with also very colorful, bee-like bloom.

Other orchids use scent to attract insects. Some plants, like Aeranthes grandalena, Cattleya walkeriana and Maxillaria tenuifolia have wonderful sweet aromas. In contrast, other species, such as Satyrium pumilum smell distinctly of rotting flesh. Perfect for attracting flies.

Are Wild orchids endangered?

All orchid species are protected by CITES, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna. Although there is an abundance of some orchid species, others are on the brink of extinction. Many factors including climate changes, logging, over collection and illegal exportation are causing some species to deteriorate. Habitat destruction is probably the biggest contributing factor to this problem.

The natural habitats of orchids are being destroyed at an alarming rate. Many species are highly specialised, requiring very specific conditions. If these are met in only a few places, the orchids can only exist in a few places. As the rainforests, and other habitats disappear, so do the orchids. Practices such as logging, farming, and over collection are endangering many species. There is a big problem for African terrestrial orchid species as many are being harvested for their potato-like tubers, for use in “Chikanda” or “kinaka”; a delicious-sounding Zambian chilli, peanut and orchid root delicacy. Although orchid tubers are a traditional African cooking ingredient, the current demand has got so great as to be unsustainable.

In some countries, just a tiny fraction of the orchids natural habitat still exists. Unique environmental niches are being destroyed by human development; in order to build communities, factories, and so on. And worse still, visitors to parks, perhaps orchid collectors, will actually dig up and steal orchids up in order to add them to their home collections.

Orchid conservation

Conservation plays in an important role in the efforts to save those orchid species that face extinction. There are countless conservation organizations working around the clock in an effort to save the orchids. A few of these organizations include the Orchid Conservation Coalition, the Orchid Conservation Alliance, and the Orchid Specialist Group. Globally, individual countries form their own conservation groups to address issues directly affecting the habitat and biodiversity of orchids in their specific regions. Some ways in which these groups are working to save the orchids is by learning to grow them in cultivation, and by propagation in order to supplement and extend their natural populations.

Finding a wild orchid growing in it's natural habitat is certainly a real pleasure, especially when it is in bloom. However, we must be more sensitive to the precarious situations many of these plants are in, if we are not to cause mass extinctions of orchid species in the coming decades.

Bulbophyllum amesianum growing epiphytically in Sarawak, Malaysia. Photo Bernard Dupont
Orchids amongst the mossy branches in Himalayan cloud forest. credit
Ansellia africana growing in a big clump. KwaZulu Natal. Bernard Dupont
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