6 March 2023

The wonderful world of orchids

If plants were conscious and capable of intelligence, orchids would be the most wise of them all. Find out why from a Kew microbiologist.

Yellow and brown leopard orchid flowers

Orchids are best known for their bizarre and fragrant flowers that make for excellent gifts and houseplants, but there is so much more to their effortless extravagance. 

These flowering plants are so old that even the memory of the dinosaurs flows in their veins. They shared the planet with bipedal reptiles for a few dozen million years and successfully survived a number of mass extinctions.

Our orchid obsession

Long before humans arrived, orchids were already the most diverse family of flowering plants, with 30,000 different wild orchid species, they made up 10% of the total number of plant species on Earth.

But it took around one hundred years for orchids to catch our eye; our subsequent fascination with this unique group of plants has resulted in over 100,000 hybrids and cultivated varieties (cultivars) that exist today.

Orchids are now abundant in hotel foyers, airport terminals, and homes. They can be found in every supermarket all over the world.

They are so popular that almost all flower shops sell fertilisers and sprays for orchids, and botanical gardens like Kew celebrate their beauty in the form of large scale, vibrant sculptures.

Kew horticulturalists tending to a large plant display of a lion
A roaring lion at Kew's orchid festival 2023 © RBG Kew

Perfumers copy orchid fragrances for cosmetics or laundry powder aromas.

Even the must-have taste for ice creams, chocolate, or other sweets comes from the natural component vanillin produced by vanilla orchid beans.

The demand for vanilla is so large that orchids can’t keep up – 90% of vanillin is now chemically produced from petroleum, and the vanillin market is worth at least $500 million.

Orchids are even behind treatments for colds around the world.

Greenish to yellow flower of the vanilla orchid
Flower of vanilla (Vanilla planifolia) © RBG Kew
Long and green fruits of vanilla plant
Fruits (‘pods’) of vanilla © Dr Yam Tim Wing

Where to find orchids

In the tropics, where most orchid species live in the canopy, they do not need soil. Instead, they decorate the tree branches on which they live and their green roots freely hang down.

Whilst in a temperate climate, they grow in soil and can be found virtually everywhere, apart from maybe glaciers.

A bright purple orchid in a green wildflower field
Pyramidal orchid (Anacamptis pyramidalis) © Alberto Trinco/RBG Kew
A large leopard orchid with green leaves and yellow flowers growing in a tree
A large leopard orchid (Ansellia africana) growing in a tree, Bernard DuPont on Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 2.0

The world’s greatest con artists

Orchid flowers are indeed bizarre but also incredibly smart; using nifty means of deception to attract pollinators.

Flowers of some species resemble the smell and shape of female bees from a particular species. They are such masters of deception, that the male bees try mating with them, unknowingly transferring pollen from one orchid to another.

Bee orchid (Ophrys apifera) flower that looks like a bee
Bee orchid (Ophrys apifera), Hans Hillewaert © Wikimedia Commons

Fungi foes

Perhaps the most exceptional feature of orchids is that their babies parasitise on fungi.

Orchid seeds are as tiny as spores or pollen grains and don’t contain any nutrients to support their germination.

Instead, they exploit fungi, which provide the first nutrients to orchid babies, and are not even rewarded for it!

So, these ancient and variable plants do not need soil, can trick bees and fungi, and use humans to multiply their diversity and distribution.

Their delicate beauty, gentle smell, and exceptional history add to the plethora of reasons why we should protect our forests and allow orchids to continue their spectacular journey on planet Earth, don’t you think? 

Orchid festival

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There's a vast collection of orchids to be explored on your next visit to Kew.

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