The enigmatic beauty of orchids: strange shapes and bright colors

06/07/2021

It is very curious that a flower as beautiful as the orchid bears a name that derives from a word that meant "testicle" in Greek (orchis). It was Theophrastus, a disciple of Aristotle, who gave the name Orchids to this variety of flowers, and probably the use of the root orchis is due to the shape of the pseudobulbs from which the stems emerge. In spite of their name, nowadays, orchids are one of the most appreciated flowers in gardening.

In Mexico, there is a great diversity of orchids, since there are around 1300 different species, some of which are very appreciated for the great beauty of their flowers and other uses that have been given to them, such as medicinal and obtaining glues and mucilage. In the state of Michoacán, there is also a great wealth of species, since there are around 200 species that are also highly appreciated. Unfortunately, however, many of them are seriously threatened.

Although currently the collection of wild orchids is prohibited in almost all existing species, the phenomenon of exploitation coupled with other factors such as habitat destruction, immoderate logging, or fires has reduced the number of these beautiful flowering plants in the country. Of the approximately 1,300 records for Mexico, which are located mainly in the southern part of the country, 444 are endemic. Of the total number of species, 180 have been included in some category of risk in the current official standard NOM 059. Despite the progress made, there is still much to be done and it is everyone's responsibility to make good use and not abuse our natural resources.

Orchids form probably the most extensive family of plants, with over 25,000 species identified so far by scientists. Although the variation in size, color, and texture is enormous, their flowers have a basic structure: three sepals and three petals, but one of them is different from the other two and is called labellum.

The differences between them are so big that we could hardly think that they are "relatives", starfish orchids, bearded orchids, hairy orchids, shiny orchids, others made almost of wax, red orchids, purple orchids, white or mottled orchids, yellow or pale pink or green orchids; orchids that simulate bees or butterflies or delicate pansies, spider orchids, aromatic, stinky or unscented orchids; some tiny, others gigantic; lady's slippers, tulip shapes, mandarin face, knot, hedgehog... a feast of shapes, colors and sizes.

Where do orchids grow?

Orchids have been able to establish themselves in almost every environment on earth thanks to their adaptations to withstand very different conditions. Many people are surprised to learn that these plants are some of the most efficient users of nutrients and water in environments where these two factors are limiting.

Mexico is a country of enormous wealth, both natural and cultural, being among the first seven countries for its variety of living beings. It has about 1,400 species of orchids, growing in almost all types of vegetation, however, most are found below 2,000 meters above sea level, in the mountains of the country's center and south, in diverse types of tropical and temperate forests.

Orchids inhabit almost every corner of the planet: they are found in all climates and on all continents. 300 orchids are endemic to Mexico, which means they are not found anywhere else in the world. This makes Mexican orchids an enormously important heritage and we, the country's inhabitants, its first guardians, directly responsible for their survival or disappearance.

The amazing coloration and beauty of orchids have always made them highly appreciated and insensibly collected. It is one of the most threatened groups of plants in the world. When they started their collection it was not unusual for an entire tree to be felled to remove all the orchids attached to its highest branches.

Orchids are the group of plants that have been most successful in colonizing the treetops and several of their most notable adaptations are directly associated with living in the highest part of the forest or with their ability to establish themselves in other environments where the availability of nutrients is very low.

How do orchids reproduce?

Surrounded by myths and mystery, the orchid has been related to love and eroticism since its beginnings. Its name comes from Greek and means testicles because of the two small tubers (food stores) that some European orchids have in their roots. Hence, it is attributed to aphrodisiac properties. However, its relationship with human love is a myth and its true wonder lies in its complex forms of reproduction.

Of the approximately 25,000 species, each one has a different shape, fragrance, size, and color and in addition to all this, it requires a certain pollinator. This represents an unparalleled degree of evolution in the plant kingdom. The conformation of the sexual organs of each species is adapted to the pollinating instrument of a specific bee, wasp, hummingbird, fly, butterfly and no other individual will be able to achieve the reproduction of that flower, not even a close cousin!

Primitive flowers, in evolutionary terms, such as the rose or the daisy, have not developed any specificity in their love relationships. With marked lightness they allow themselves to be pollinated by wind, rain, or gravity, as well as by any ugly, handsome, fat, or skinny insect that walks by. The distinguished and discreet orchid, on the other hand, establishes a definitive and sometimes mutually dependent relationship with a single species. This relationship is so vital that if for any reason the pollinator of any orchid disappears, the flower will unfortunately no longer be able to reproduce and its species will probably become extinct.

Why are orchids important?

It is estimated that there are 25,000 species of orchids in the world. Seven percent of all flowering plants are orchids, making them the largest botanical family. Orchids grow almost everywhere but most species are found in the tropics; from sea level to almost 5000 meters above sea level; in almost every habitat except water and desert. They are particularly dominant in nutrient-poor habitats. More than half of the orchids are epiphytes.

Their life cycle is complex; during germination, they require an associated fungus (mycorrhiza) and specific pollinators. This is why orchids offer a great opportunity to study the interactions between plants, fungi, and animals. Orchids are extremely sensitive to environmental changes, a topic of growing interest today. The classification of the family is complex because of their large size, preference for tropical habitats, the rarity of many of the species, intense horticultural interest, and over-reliance on floral morphology.

It is a group of plants of considerable economic importance, especially in horticulture and floriculture, but also in the pharmaceutical and essence industry. In some developing countries, orchids are their main economic line. Orchids are a charismatic group and have been called the "pandas of the plant world". They occupy a prominent place in plant conservation programs. There are a large number of nature reserves dedicated to the conservation of orchids.

Are orchids in danger of disappearing?

Orchids have been collected for many years mainly because of the beauty of their flowers, these practices have brought negative consequences for many populations of these plants since there are species of orchids that are no longer in the forests and some others follow this same course. Such is the case of Mexipediumxerophyticum and Pragmipediumexstaminodiumsubsp. exstaminodium, these species can no longer live in nature, since they are so rare that their populations are not viable and the forests where they live are disappearing very quickly.

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.

Orchids are very attractive to humans, which is why they are often collected excessively for trade in local and international markets. 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.

Taking care of the orchids

There are some very simple actions to help the conservation of orchids, some of these are: do not buy orchids that come directly from the field, there are laws that prohibit these practices, as it puts the survival of populations in the forest at risk.

Buy your orchids in established greenhouses, it is much better to do this because the plants sold there are generally healthy, are not extracted from the field, and often have a better development. Learn to grow orchids at home, orchid collectors often have species in their yards that are no longer in the forest and it is important that these plants do not die due to lack of knowledge.

The best-known orchids

Among the most recognized species in Mexico, 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. 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.

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 low humid temperatures.

Orchids in the literature

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). 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).

Like 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. 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.

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.

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 orchid plants. The author's imagination transforms the orchid into a deceptive flower, capable of killing its keeper.

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.

The orchids belong to the family Orchidaceae, with approximately 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.

By Mexicanist, Sources: Saber mas