Story Behind the Science
Orchids are known for their beauty and diversity. Because of their exotic appearance, orchids were in high demand in Europe during the 19th century. They have become widely available now and are used for decorative, as well as economic, purposes. Many orchids have evolved their shape and color to target specific pollinators like bees, wasps and other insects.
The cultivation of orchids has the potential to either build or hinder their conservation. Many orchids are cross-pollinated with others to create new hybrid species, adding to their already diverse population. Some orchid collectors choose unethical practices for cultivating rare orchids from their natural habitats, however, contributing to the endangerment of this flowering plant family.
Orchids are known as the largest family of flowering plants (also called angiosperms) with more than 25,000 recorded species. Between 200 and 300 newly discovered orchid species are added to this growing list every year.
Orchids may be the most abundant of flowering plants, but like many other plants, some orchids are in danger. It is estimated that approximately 10 percent of orchid species are endangered in their natural environments due to factors like loss of habitat, overexploitation and orchid collecting.
Throughout history, as orchids have been discovered, they have been collected in unnecessarily large quantities. This contributes to their overexploitation, also known as overharvesting. In the 1800s, when orchids were a hot commodity in Europe, they were collected and transported in vast quantities. Unfortunately, more than half of the orchids sent to Europe died during travel. This then added to their already rare and expensive status.
The main threat to orchids is habitat destruction. Natural environments are often altered or completely destroyed for the sake of cultivation and forestry, as well as for industrial and urban development. Although this has a direct negative impact on orchids, it also affects them indirectly through other plants, animals, fungi and insects that they rely on (and that rely on them) for survival.
Did You Know?
- Like human faces, orchids have bilateral symmetry – if cut vertically halfway through, both sides would be like mirror images.Learn More »
- A very popular species of orchid is vanilla.Learn More »
- Orchids were very expensive in England in the 19th century. The highest (recorded) price anyone had paid for an orchid was £1,500, which equals about £96,500 now (that’s almost $150,000!).Learn More »
- Orchids can range from the size of a dime to several hundred pounds.Learn More »
- The first orchid fossil is dated back between 15 million and 20 million years ago. The fossil is of a bee trapped in amber carrying the pollen of an orchid.Learn More »
|Compare & Contrast||Orchids||Flowering Plants (Angiosperms)|
|How many species?||More than 25,000||Approximately 260,000|
|Where do they occur?||Though most abundant in tropical regions, orchids can be found on every continent and in any climate besides Antarctica.||Flowering plants are found in all habitats, aside from the most extreme environments.|
|How do they grow?||Orchids gather water and nutrients through aerial roots, which absorb them through the air. They also acquire nutrients through partnerships with fungi.||Flowering plants use nutrients obtained through water, soil and air. These nutrients produce sugar, which plants use to feed themselves.|
|Do they have predators?||Aphids, mealybugs, scales, two-spotted spider mites, thrips and other similar insect and mite pests||Herbivores|