Botany Gardening Orchids

15 Fun Facts About Orchids

Plusieurs phalaenopsis of different colors.

Phalaenopsis or moth orchids are currently the most popular orchids. Photo:

So many of us grow orchids, but what do we really know about them? Here are some fun facts about this fascinating group of plants.

Illustration of multiple different orchids.
Illustration of orchid diversity from Kunstformen de Nature, by Ernst Haeckel (1899)
  1. The orchid family (Orchidaceae) is, with the Asteraceae* or sunflower family, the largest in the world, containing some 28,000 species distributed in 763 genera. There are four times more orchid species on this planet than mammal species!

*Which family is actually larger is debatable, because data on different species is always changing.

  1. Orchids are both very ancient and very modern. They are among the oldest known flowering plants, with the oldest dating back 112 million years ago to the Early Cretaceous, when dinosaurs ruled the earth. By 64 million years ago, they had evolved pollinia and by 35 million years ago, many had become epiphytes. However, orchids continue to evolve to this day and about 20 new species are described every year. 
Map showing world distribution of orchids.
Orchids are found all over the world. Ill.: Dalton Holland Baptista, Wikimedia Commons
  1. Orchids are not just tropical, as you might expect, given the current popularity of houseplant orchids, but are found all over the world, from the equator to the Arctic Circle. And in most environments, too, from arid climates to tropical jungles. They are found on every continent except Antarctica.
  2. Orchid flowers have variable durations. Some last only hours (Sobralia spp, for example, last barely a day) while others last months (many Phalaenopsis hybrids). Probably the average lifespan of an orchid flower is about 2 to 4 weeks.
The world’s largest orchid with a man standing nearby.
The world’s largest orchid: the giant orchid (Grammatophyllum speciosum). Photo: Schuiteman,
  1. The world’s largest orchid, is the giant orchid or tiger orchid, Grammatophyllum speciosum, which can measure up to 7.62 m (25 ft) in height and weigh up to 2 tons, bearing thousands of abundantly spotted flowers at once. In spite of its size, it mostly grows as an epiphyte, high up in the branches of forest trees on the islands of Southeast Asia. 
The world’s smallest orchid with a finger to compare.
Platystele jungermannioides in full bloom isn’t much larger than a fingernail. Photo: Orchids Wiki
  1. The world’s smallest orchid is, officially, Platystele jungermannioides of the cloud forests of Mexico, Guatemala, Costa Rica and Panama. The plant itself about the size of a dime, including the leaves, roots and flowers. An even smaller orchid was recently discovered in Ecuador, but it has yet to be officially described.
Orchid seed pod split open.
Orchid seeds are no larger than dust. Photo: Blue Sky Channel,
  1. Orchids have the smallest seeds in the world, no larger than a speck of dust, with those of the New Caledonian species Anoectochilus imitans are said to be the smallest of all, measuring just 0.05 mm in length. A single seed capsule of some species can contain up to 4 million seeds. This is largely because orchid seeds, unlike other seeds, have no food reserve. To germinate, most first have to form in a mycorrhizal relationship with a fungus that will supply the nutrients they need in order to grow. 
Vanilla orchid with flowers and dried flowers.
The vanilla orchid is the only orchid grown commercially for its edible parts.
  1. Only one orchid among all the thousands of species is considered to have an edible fruit. The seed pods (beans) of vanilla orchids (Vanilla spp.) are harvested and produce the well-known vanilla flavoring. It is the second most expensive spice in the world after saffron.
Greenhouse full of phalaenopsis orchids.
Moth orchids (Phalaneopsis spp.) are the most widely grown orchid in the world. Photo:
  1. Moth orchids (Phalaneopsis species and hybrids) are currently the most widely grown houseplants in the world, now superceding the popular Christmas plant, the poinsettia (Euphorbia pulcherrima), with sales increasing annually. They are grown by the millions on all continents and, yes, even—indoors, of course—in Antarctica, where there are reports of one being grown in a research studio.
Paired tubers of a Orchis species.
The name orchid comes from the Ancient Greek word for testicle because of the paired tubers of the Orchis orchid. Photo:
  1. The name orchid comes from plants in the the genus Orchis, such as Orchis mascula, and derives from the Ancient Greek word orchis meaning “testicle”; because of the shape of the paired underground tubers of this terrestrial European species. The term “orchid”, which is just a shortened form of the family Orchidaceae, was not introduced until 1845.
Orchid flower showing petals, sepals, lip and column
  1. Orchid flowers are quite unusual. While they have the usual 6 tepals (3 petals and 3 sepals) common to most other monocots, one of the petals is highly modified. Called the labellum (or lip), it is typically quite different from the other tepals both in shape and color. It usually functions to attract insect pollinators and direct them to the flower’s column where it’s sexual organs are concentrated.
  2. The column in the center of the flower is fairly unique as well. It’s a fusion of the stamen, where the pollen is made, and stigma, where the pollen germinates. On most other flowers, these are separate parts, rather grouped into a single organ. 
Bee with pollinia stuck to its back.
Tropical bee with pollinia stuck to its back. Photo: Mindy Lighthipe-Artist
  1. The pollen of orchids is not exposed on the anther at the tip of stamen as in most flowers, but is condensed into a dense mass called a pollinium (plural pollinia). When an insect visits an orchid flower, the pollinia is typically glued to its body and the insect then carries it to the flower of another orchid of the same species where it becomes caught and is pulled free, thus fecundating the flower and leading to seed production.
Vanda orchids with thick roots.
Ephiphyic orchids (these are vandas) usually have thick roots covered in water-absorbing vela men. Photo:
  1. Orchid roots too can be pretty special, especially in the case of epiphytic orchids (the ones that grow on trees). They’re aerial and reach out in all directions, eventually fixing themselves to branches and bark in the wild. They’re very thick and covered with a spongy whitish to brownish epidermis called velamen whose role is to absorb and hold moisture. When moistened, these roots often show an underlying greenish coloration due to the presence of chlorophyll and carry out some photosynthesis. Indeed, some orchids have no leaves at all and carry out photosynthesis uniquely through their photosynthetic roots.
Illustration of sympodial and monopodial orchids.
Sympodial and monopodial: two ways of growing. Photo: My First Orchid
  1. Orchids are classified into two groups. Those that grow up from a single stem, such as Phalaneopsis and Vanda orchids, are said to be monopodial (mono = single / pod = foot). The majority, however, grow horizontally along a creeping, branching rhizome and are called sympodial (sym = many / pod = feet). This includes such genera as CattleyaCympdidium, Dendrobium and Oncidium. Many tropical sympodial orchids produce a line of bulblike structures at their base called pseudobulbs. Each pseudobulb blooms only once, but by then another or several other pseudobulbs will be forming and each will bloom in its turn. Leafless older pseudobulbs that have already bloomed are called back bulbs and serve as an energy and water reservoir for newer growth. Monopodial orchids are usually reproduced by stem cuttings, unless they produce an offset (keiki or baby orchid) that can be cut free and rooted. Sympodial orchids are mostly multiplied by division.

So there you go: orchids have been mass-produced to the extent they are now common, everyday houseplants … but that doesn’t mean they don’t have their fun little secrets!

Larry Hodgson is one of Canada’s best-known garden communicators. He has notably been editor-in-chief of HousePlant Magazine, Fleurs, Plantes et Jardins, À Fleur de Pot and Houseplant Forum magazines and is currently the garden correspondent for Le Soleil and radio garden commentator for CKIA-FM Radio. He has written for many garden publications in both the United States and Canada, including Canadian Gardening, Harrowsmith, Horticulture, Fine Gardening and Organic Gardening. He also speaks frequently to horticultural groups throughout Canada and the U.S. His book credits include The Garden Lover’s Guide to Canada, Complete Guide to Houseplants, Making the Most of Shade, Perennials for Every Purpose, Annuals for Every Purpose, and Houseplants for Dummies, as well as nearly 60 other titles in English and French. He is a past president of the Garden Writers Association (now Garden Communicators International) and the winner of the prestigious 2006 Garden Media Promoter Award offered by the Perennial Plant Association. He resides in Quebec City, Quebec, Canada.

4 comments on “15 Fun Facts About Orchids

  1. Orchids are all over the world. Thank you 😊

  2. nancy marie allen

    Great info on one of my favorite houseplants!

  3. With real estate as ridiculously expensive as it is in the San Francisco Bay Area, it is impossible to imagine that Rod McClellan grew so many orchids and companion crops on so many acres around South San Francisco for decades. I remember acres of eucalyptus that were grown for cut foliage on the hillsides above San Bruno.

  4. I wondered about the botanical name. So evidently an orchidectomy is not the theft or removal of one’s orchid collection? 🙂 And crypto-orchidism is not the hiding of said orchid stash to prevent an orchidectomy? 🙂 just a little medical humor. 🙂

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