The enigmatic beauty of orchids

Strange shapes and bright colors captured Charles Darwin's attention to dedicate a study to the adaptations of orchids, two years after his best-known work The Origin of Species (1859).

Intriguing beauty of orchids
Intriguing beauty of orchids

These plants evoke the exuberance of tropical forests, even the English novelist Herbert George Wells associated some of Darwin's studies in the story The Flowering of the Strange Orchid (1894).

It is fascinating to find in literary works the strangeness caused by orchids, plants that represent one of the largest botanical families; while in Latin American countries, more than a luxury accessory, they had cultural, gastronomic and medicinal value.

"Their cultural and economic value in our country puts orchids in a complicated situation of over-exploitation and illegal trafficking. Mexico is home to a notable wealth of orchids, with approximately 1,300 species and 170 genera," said Adriana Becerril Montes, president of the Mexican Association of Orchidology, in an interview. (AMO).

A Tropical Flower

The orchids became a symbol of the English empire and represented the wealth of those who owned nurseries. In H. G. Wells' story, he tells the adventure of Mr. Winter-Wedderburn, whose only interest in life was orchids. The author's imagination transforms the orchid into a deceptive flower, capable of killing its keeper.

Nowadays, the lack of diffusion about its biological and evolutionary mysteries can be a factor against its conservation. By visualizing them as exotic plants, they risk becoming important jewels in the illegal trade. However, orchids can be found in the corners of mountains, jungles, and forests.

"The climatic conditions of our country allow the development of these plants. That makes us unique in the world, since these endemic species also become difficult to cultivate, like Laelia speciosa," explained science doctor Eduardo Alberto Pérez García, a member of the association.

Likewise, orchids are the third most taxonomically diverse plant family in the country, behind the Asteraceae and Fabaceae families.

In pre-Columbian times, they were used in rituals, traditional medicine, gastronomy, and in the ornament.

"Vanilla is one of the most famous orchids and has an economic and culinary value. We also have the genus Laelia, which includes 11 species and is found in its natural state only in Mexico and Central America," explained Octavio Ubaldo Reyes, secretary of the WOA.

Delicate and strange

The orchids belong to the family Orchidaceae, with an approximate of more than 30 thousand species.

Its floral design is a natural strategy to attract pollinators, being the phenomenon that called Darwin's attention, and described in his work: The varied strategies by which orchids are fertilized by insects (1877), the second edition of an earlier text.

As most of his works, Darwin recapitulates an epistolary exchange with other experts, which allowed him to complement and reaffirm his observations with species from other parts of the world.

"Orchids have processes of imitation and adaptation. Some possess nectar, others pretend to possess it, and there are also those that pretend to have pollen. Some are very curious and imitate the shape of insects or bees' nests to attract their pollinators; finally, there are those that fertilize themselves," explained Dr. Adriana Becerril.

From a biological point of view, orchids are interesting plants because of their geographical distribution, pollination systems, the attraction of pollinators, and curious adaptations.

"One of their most notable characteristics is that they are epiphytes, that is, they grow on trees without parasitizing them, so they do not harm their host. Their roots fulfill the function of capturing water from the atmosphere, absorbing nutrients, and ensuring the plant's attachment to the bark," said Adriana Becerril.

The best known

"Among the most recognized species in our country, some names stand out. One example is Barkeria melanocaulon. This species is one of the most recognized and is an epiphyte type plant, distributed specifically in Oaxaca," said Eduardo Alberto Pérez García.

This orchid is usually found in forests, while growing on oak tree trunks. It is not very large and tends to adapt better to warm climates.

On the other hand, there is Acineta barkeri, an epiphyte plant with a medium size compared to other species, measuring on average 30 centimeters long; it usually flowers in the summer season, with its remarkable yellow tones in intense color. In its flowering stage, it produces about 15 to 20 flowers; it can be found in Oaxaca and Chiapas, especially in forests with a low humid temperature.

The threats

The status of Mexican orchids is critical, as they are dependent on the existence of forests. The modification and destruction of natural vegetation eliminate their habitat.

"Orchids have ecological importance in the management and recycling of nutrients, but they also have great cultural value. In many parts of the country, they are important in rituals and some have medicinal properties," said anthropologist Octavio Ubaldo Reyes.

Dr. Adriana Becerril said that orchids are very attractive to humans, which is why they are often collected excessively for trade in local and international markets.

Besides captivating poets, naturalists and writers, perhaps Darwin's triumph in the field of orchidology was to dimension its structures and study every detail, giving rise to modern studies on its species.

However, the path to their conservation and revaluation represents a goal to be achieved.

Disseminating scientific and updated information about orchids is one of the primary tasks of the Mexican Association of Orchidology. The group is in charge of the dissemination of their cultivation, biology, and conservation.

Through exhibitions and publications, experts seek to captivate society in orchidology, but not with the orchid flowers that are undoubtedly unique, but with the not so visible details that represent their cultivation, biology and evolutionary mysteries.

"At the end of the apex are the flowers, but those wither away, and again we have to start all over again. The fascinating thing about orchids is to find out where they come from, what kind of rock you have to use to grow them. It's about getting involved further, learning new things. Growing the orchid is as laborious as growing a bonsai. It's a creative and scientific process. Not everything is consumerism, the fast, the disposable," concluded Dr. Eduardo Alberto Perez Garcia.

By Aketzalli Gonzalez via Ciencia MX