Gardens: Things you didn’t know about orchids

Orchids at RHS Wisley Orchid House.Orchids at RHS Wisley Orchid House.
Orchids at RHS Wisley Orchid House.
Since tropical orchids first reached Western Europe in the 1700s, the orchid has been a source of fascination.

Owing to their rarity, mysterious nature and appearance, orchids were a symbol of wealth in the 19th and early 20th centuries, fetching astonishing prices and becoming an obsession for the rich, according to the RHS.

Here, experts from Kew and from the RHS suggest 10 things you might not know about these exotic, elegant plants.

They are one of the largest plant families

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There are more than 26,000 species of orchid (Orchidaceae) known to science, possibly outnumbered only by the daisy family (Asteraceae). In the wild, they grow in an incredibly diverse range of habitats, from vast grasslands to tropical rainforests.

They are master tricksters

Many orchid species have evolved to trick pollinators into falsely believing they will receive a reward from the flower during pollination. For example, the fly orchid (Ophrys insectifera) and its relatives produce flowers and scents that mimic female insects.

When the male attempts to mate with the flower, it inadvertently picks up pollen and transfers it between plants. Some use a different form of deceit. Satyrium pumilum (endemic to southern Africa) emits the smell of rotting flesh to entice carrion flies into pollinating it.

Orchids rely on fungi for survival

In the wild, orchid seeds can’t germinate without being infected by mycorrhizal fungi. The fungus provides the essential nutrients needed for seeds to successfully germinate. Some orchid species don’t photosynthesise at all and are essentially parasites on fungi.

They’re not all small and elegant

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The Asian giant tiger orchid can weigh over a ton, producing leafy canes over 8ft long that produce 18ft flowering stems.

They grow everywhere – except Antarctica and the true deserts

Although most people encounter orchids as hybrid Phalaenopsis varieties available to buy at garden centres and supermarkets, wild species grow practically all over the world. They can be found on every continent, with the exception of Antarctica. Madagascar alone is home to over 1,000 endemic species, meaning that they grow nowhere else.

Some smell really bad and look ugly

In Japan, competitions are held where orchids are judged on their fragrance. But some smell unpleasant. The orchid Bulbophyllum beccarii, for example, has been described as smelling like ‘a thousand dead elephants’.

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Not all orchids are aesthetically pleasing either. The flowers of the small, brown, leafless orchid Gastrodia agnicellus from Madagascar have helped garner its title of ‘the ugliest orchid in the world’.

They are the canary in the coal mine for biodiversity loss

Because of their close relationships with specific pollinators and fungi, loss of orchids is an early warning of problems for entire ecosystems. They are extremely sensitive to changes in environment and their disappearance can be viewed as an indicator of poor ecosystem health. Some 56% of orchids are likely to be threatened with extinction, due to habitat destruction, climate change and over-collection, according to Kew’s recent State of the World’s Plants and Fungi report.

Orchids have a 007 connection

Anyone who has seen the film Moonraker will recall that Bond villain, Hugo Drax, was an orchid collector who planned to use a poison derived from a fictional black orchid to kill the entire population of the earth, so he could repopulate the planet with his own chosen ‘master race’.

Some orchids are edible

Vanilla (Vanilla planifolia) is a vining orchid from the Central and northern South America that can reach up to 15m in length. It provides one of the most popular flavours in the world, the second most expensive spice after saffron due to the labour involved in growing vanilla pods. Due to habitat destruction and over-exploitation, it is now rare in the wild. Vanilla extract from its fermented seed pods is one of Madagascar’s biggest exports.

A rare bird is protecting a new species

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Aeranthes bigibbum, a white orchid named as new to science in 2023, was found in a small reserve in Madagascar managed by a group of villagers tasked with protecting a very rare bird, the blue-beaked helmet vanga (Euryceros prevostii). The bird attracts paying visitors, and its presence has saved the forest – and the rare orchid – from clearance.

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