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Orchid Family (Orchidaceae)

Orchids And Humans

Many people have a deep affinity for the beauty of orchids, and wild plants are actively sought out for viewing during their flowering period. Hiking and other types of back-country explorations are an increasingly popular recreational activity. These outdoor ventures are greatly enhanced by the presence of flowering orchids, in much the same way that sightings of charismatic animals, such as bear, deer, and eagles, can make a day very special.

Because orchids are so renowned for the beauty of their flowers, they are commonly cultivated in greenhouses, homes, and in warm and humid climates, in outdoor gardens. The most popular genera of horticultural orchids are Catteleya, Cymbidium, Dendrobium, Epidendrum, and Vanda, all of which are species native to tropical forests.

In addition to cultivating these beautiful plants for their aesthetic value in homes and gardens, orchids are also grown in great numbers for the cut-flower industry. These orchids are grown to provide flowers for pleasing displays in vases in hotels, offices, meetings, and other commercial places and functions, and to arrange into corsages for social events such as weddings and formal dances.

Horticulturists have invested tremendous amounts of time and money to develop reliable methods of breeding and propagating orchids. Although breeders have long been skilled at achieving hybrid crosses between species and even between genera of orchids, for some time they experienced few successes in establishing and growing seedlings after germinating the dust-like seeds of these plants. However, this horticultural barrier was substantially overcome by the discovery of the critical importance of the mycorrhizal relationships of orchids. Inoculation with an appropriate mycorrhizal fungus is now an integral component of the methodology used to cultivate orchid seedlings, and successful establishment of seedlings can now be routinely achieved. In addition, dependable methods have also been worked out for the propagation of orchids using tissue culture and other non-sexual means of establishing new plants.

Considering these great advances of orchid horticulture, it is highly regrettable that so many of these plants continue to be collected from wild natural habitats. Many species of wild orchids have become critically endangered by excessive, often illegal collection of plants for the horticultural trade. Unfortunately, orchid rustling can be a rather profitable endeavor, especially for rare species, which are enthusiastically sought after by unscrupulous collectors of these charismatic plants. Although the international trade of wild-collected orchids is controlled by CITES (the Committee on International Trade in Endangered Species), there is still a great deal of illegal smuggling. Considering the endangered status of so many species of orchids, it is important that their wild populations are left undisturbed in their natural habitats and horticulture limited to the propagation of plants that are already in cultivation.

The only food obtained from the orchid family is a flavoring substance known as vanilla, which is extracted from the ripe, seed-bearing fruits, or "beans," of the vanilla orchid (Vanilla fragrans), a climbing orchid native to the West Indies and Mexico. Vanilla was used by the Aztecs as a flavoring for chocolate. Today, vanilla is mostly obtained from plants grown on plantations, but this relatively expensive natural product is increasingly being replaced by a synthetic vanilla, manufactured from a substance obtained from oil of cloves.



Arditti, J. Fundamentals of Orchid Biology. New York: Wiley, 1992.

Botanica's Orchids: Over 1200 Species. San Diego, CA: Laurel Glen Publishing, 2002.

Correll, D. Native Orchids of North America: North of Mexico. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1950.

Cullen, J., ed. The Orchid Book. A Guide to the Identification of Cultivated Orchid Species. Cambridge, U.K: Cambridge University Press, 1992.

Dressler, R.L. The Orchids. Natural History and Classification. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1990.

Griffiths, Mark. The Orchid: From the Archives of the Royal Horticultural Society. New York: Harry N Abrams, 2002.

Lavarack, P.S. Dendrobium and Its Relatives. Portland, OR: Timber Press, 2000.

Luer, C.A. The Native Orchids of the United States and Canada, Excluding Florida. New York: New York Botanical Garden, 1975.

Bill Freedman


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—This is the intrinsically linked evolution of two or more species, as a result of a close ecological relationship such as pollination, predation, herbivory, or mutualism.


—A plant which relies upon another plant, such as a tree, for physical support, but does not harm the host plant.


—An intimate relationship between two or more organisms that is beneficial to both.


—In the botanical sense, this refers to flowers that are bisexual, containing both male and female reproductive parts.


—This refers to an organism that derives its energy by decomposing dead organic matter. Many species of mushroom-producing fungi live off the organic debris that is present in the mineral soil and, especially, the surface litter of leaves and woody debris on the forest floor.


—A biological relationship between two or more organisms that is mutually beneficial. The relationship is obligate, meaning that the partners cannot successfully live apart in nature.

Zygomorphic (or irregular)

—Flowers that are bilaterally symmetric, that is, a vertical, longitudinal section of the flower yields two sections that are mirror images.

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Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Octadecanoate to OvenbirdsOrchid Family (Orchidaceae) - Biology And Ecology Of Orchids, Native Orchids In North America, Orchids And Humans