24 January 2019

Colombia's most interesting orchids

There is an incredible diversity of orchids on this Earth; over 25,000 species of them! Expert Oscar Alejandro Pérez Escobar shares his five favourite orchid facts from his native Colombia.

Oscar Alejandro Pérez Escobar

By Meryl Westlake and Dr Oscar Alejandro Pérez Escobar

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Colombia is a hyper-diverse paradise

Colombia is rich in orchids; the richest in the world with nearly 4,270 species known!

The reason it’s so hyper-diverse is due largely to the montane areas like the Andean Cordillera.

Such chain of mountains is the home of a diverse set of environments, including lowland dry forestswet forests, and cloud forests (yes, that’s real!) and Paramos (grassland-like environments).

Most of the Colombian orchid species diversity are epiphytes (plants that live on the bark of other trees and that depend on the air moist and debris accumulated at branch and boles of trees).  

In fact, the cloud forests of the Nariño department in western Colombia hold the record for the place with the highest number of epiphyte diversity in the world.

Cloud forests in Los Farallones, Colombia
Cloud forests in Los Farallones, Colombia by Giovanny Pulido

The huge one

This massive orchid flower can reach up to 100 grams!

Living in the Colombian lowland. the bucket orchid Coryanthes macrantha produce flowers which can be up to 12.5cm in diameter.

They grow in huge “ant-garden” nests that can be as wide as 150cm, built on tree branches up in the forest canopy. This mutualistic association with the ants helps the bucket orchid to rapidly grow and produce such massive flowers throughout the year.

The Coryanthes macrantha orchid
The Coryanthes macrantha orchid by Diego Bogarin

Colombia's national treasure

The Colombian national flower is the orchid Cattleya trianae, or the “Christmas orchid”.

It is endemic to Colombia and naturally occurs in the wet lowland and cloud forest of the Colombian Andes.

It was picked as our national flower because the combination of blue, yellow and red colours in the flowers are reminiscent of the Colombian flag and because it was named after the prominent Colombian botanist Jose Jeronimo Triana.

The Cattkeya trianae orchid at Kew Gardens
The Cattkeya trianae orchid at Kew Gardens

Orchids are endangered

The Christmas orchid is currently critically endangered because of deforestation and selective extraction for commercial exploitation

The pacific lowland wet forests of Colombia are also the home of the endemic Cycnoches barthiorum, commonly known as swan orchid.

Most orchids produce bisexual flowers, meaning that male and female reproductive organs are produced in the same flower. Yet, the swan orchids are able to produce male and female flowers which do not look alike.

The differences between the male and female flowers of the same species can be so striking that botanists of the 19th century thought that they were from very different species.

Dracula orchid

The Andean cloud forests in Colombia host 42 species of Dracula orchids, which is about the half of the world known species diversity of such group.

Dracula are group of bizarre orchids, living up to their creepy name.

They have dragon-like flowers that mimic the morphology and fragrances emitted by gilled fungi. That ends up fooling fruit flies, tricking them into pollination.

The orchid Dracula chimaera is a common component of the cloud forests in Colombia and has the record of the epiphyte orchid with the largest wingspan (nearly 25 cm!) in the American tropics.  

 

The Dracula orchid in Colombia
The Dracula orchid in Colombia
The Dracula orchid in Colombia
The Dracula orchid in Colombia

What makes orchids interesting?

Oscar takes us through the unique quirks and characteristics of the orchid plant.