By Sara Thompson
Special to the Enterprise
Orchids are one of the most recognizable and popular flowering plants there are. Their recognition may be due in part that there are almost 28,000 species in the orchid family of Orchidaceae. That is nearly equal to the number of bony fish species, more than double of the number of bird species, and over four times the number of mammal species! The Orchidaceae family makes up between 6-11% of all seed producing plants.
The bright colors of orchid flowers help to attract pollinators. Many flowering plants have separate structures for reproduction, the stamen to produce pollen to be collected by pollinators, and the stigma and style to accept distributed pollen and fertilize the seeds. Orchids do things a little differently. They combined their stamen and style into a single structure called the column. Instead of releasing individual pollen grains, their pollen grains are contained in bundles called pollinia. The pollinia are attached to a sticky disk and will attach to a pollinator and will hang in a position that will contact the column of another orchid and pollinate it. Because pollination is so specialized and chances can be low, orchids stay receptive longer than other flowering plants. A single seed pod of an orchid can also contain over a million seeds, also increasing successful reproduction. A single orchid seed is about the size of a speck of dust and needs a microscope to be seen.
Orchid seeds rely on the symbiotic relationship with mycorrhizal fungi in order to germinate and grow. An orchid seed does not contain any nutrients for itself, and rather gets its nutrients from the fungi it is attempting to grow on. Even with successful germination, it can still take several years for an orchid plant to produce its first flowers. Many of the orchids you find in stores are already 10 or more years old. When cared for properly, orchid plants can live up to 100 years.
Orchid flowers are made up of three sepals, three pedals, and have a three chambered ovary. Flowers have bilateral symmetry and are actually upside-down. When an orchid is blooming, it will rotate 180 degrees so that the labellum is under the column making a shelf or lip for pollinators to land on and help with successful pollination.
With so many orchid varieties it is not surprising that they are found in all continents except for Antarctica. Most orchid species are found in tropical regions, but some are also found in temperate regions as well. With their widespread distribution, orchid species are the national flower of several nations, including Venezuela, Columbia, Singapore, Costa Rice, Honduras, Belize, Guatemala, and Panama, as well as being the state and city flowers of other places around the world. Orchids are used as houseplants, in perfumes, and even as food. Vanilla is made from the seed pods of one orchid genus also named Vanilla.
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