The mystique world of Orchids

Nature’s gift to mankind is amazing! with innumerable resources, among the natural resources plant kingdom is unique. Flowering plants within the plant kingdom attracts all living beings for various mutual benefits. There are several components in the ecosystem and each one of these living entities have a role in this vibrant ecosystem. Man has always been the part of the ecosystem and has mutual relationship with various biota in the ecosystem. The plant kingdom has been serving the humanity for their economic, ecological, Socio cultural and medicinal purposes. Both tangible and intangible benefits have been reaped from these different entities in the ecosystem. Having said this, man with his ingenuity has made use of these plant resources (especially higher plants) and maximized his benefits and at the same time made some efforts (after a reality check!) for conservation of this resource in some ways. Whether these efforts are adequate enough to sustain the resources for future usage is a different question altogether.

Rose is known as ‘Queen of flowers’ for a very long time and of course even now! and along with Roses host of other flowers such as Gerberas, Chrysanthemums, Anthuriums, Gladioli, Alstroemerias, Tulips and lilies which are not only aesthetically attractive but also commercially important. These dominated the cut flower industry for a long time. In comes the Orchid, (Picture 1) the whole scenario changes and almost the orchids have taken over as the ‘leader’. One wonders how did orchids have taken over this new position? and what is so special about orchids? Let us try to look into the intricacies and mystique surrounding orchids which always made them an elusive and much sought after flowering plant.
Orchids belongs to the family Orchidaceae. Orchids are known to exist long before humans arrived on this planet. Genetic studies have indicated that orchids may have been there earlier some 76-84 million years ago during the late cretaceous period. Some are of the opinion that they are even older and may go back roughly 100 million years ago. These observations indicate that orchids were one of the oldest flow
ering plants on earth. This is further supported by the fact that orchids exist literally on every region
on earth except the glaciers.

Some orchids are also found in the arctic circle. Orchids are unique and unparalleled plant group with enticing floral designs and intricacy along with diverse plant structures. The word orchid for many signifies exotic, bizarre, mysterious and to some extent luxurious flowering plant. The lure of orchids has many unbelievable and adventurous stories by the explorers in some of the highly inhospitable and often dangerous jungles in the tropics. Orchid growing is known to be very addictive and people associated with orchids are often called as ‘Orchid maniacs’.

Orchids are of two types one is an epiphyte which grows on tree branches, and the other is terrestrial which grows in grasslands and other shady areas of forest floors. Epiphytes, though they grow on trees, they are not parasites and are capable of making their own food. Epiphytes depend on the trees only for support and anchorage. They exhibit high degree of specialization and adaptation in its plant parts. Orchids are distributed in every habitat except the glaciers. Richness in their diversity is observed in the tropics. There are 26, 567 orchid species in the world as per world checklist of selected Plant families under more than 880 genera. World over, they are mainly distributed in tropical Asia (260-300 genera), tropical America (212-250 genera) and tropical Africa (230-270 genera)

‘A thing of beauty is a joy forever’, orchids are potentially almost immortal. Of all the flowers blooming on earth at any one point of time, it is estimated that one in four Is an orchid (Picture 3.). The mystery of orchid surrounds its flower, let us first take a look at it, what makes it so intriguing and captivating. First of all, the size of the flower comes in all sizes. Huge flowers of Phalaenopsis, Vandas, and even Dendrobiums on one side and the smallest of the flowers comes from Brazil measuring half millimeter Campylocentrum insulare. The world’s biggest orchid plant is still Grammatophyllum speciosum (see next page for pics.) with a well grown half ton plant perching on branches of a tree and on occasions, bringing down the branch unable to wear the weight of the plant.

The most fascinating part of the orchid flower is the shapes in which it appears, nature has been the wonderful artist here to come out with such an interesting flower shapes. The main floral part which adopts astonishing shapes is the ‘lip’ or labellum (botanical term) of the flower (Picture 5). Some of the flowers resemble a bee as in genus Ophrys and also in our own Western Ghats orchid, Cottonia peduncularis (Picture. 6). Mimicking a human face, and that of a dancing doll (Oncidium spp and Habenria crinifera) (Picture 7 and 8 ) and so on. Most of these shapes, markings, striations and additional modifications the flowers resort is, mainly with the sole objective of attracting the pollinators for furthering their progeny. In the process we find these shapes, modifications and variations in the flower very appealing. Indeed, it is, as we see nature at its best as an artist (Picture 9). With these adaptations, the flowers attract the pollinators whether it is Euglossine bees or other bees, mosquitoes, flies, moths, butterflies, these insects land on the flower either for nectar or confusing the flowers as their partners, in the process helps the flowers to pollinate (Picture 10). Some of the markings, striations and patterns on the lip of the flower are to be seen to believe it, such is the nature’s artistry.

If this is nature’s wonderful creation, man has taken this further with his ingenuity. Orchid hybrids are well known all over the world for their size, color variations, shapes and vase life. Some of the hybrids bred exclusively for cut flowers remain fresh for months on the plant itself. Hybridization in orchids is phenomenal as no other family in the flowering plant breeds so prolific. They breed easily within the genera (intra generic) and between different genera (Inter generic) and produce mindboggling flowers. There are more than 154,000 hybrids which are registered and probably equal number or more unregistered hybrids are there. But most of these hybrids are a treat to watch when in bloom (Picture 11).
It is these hybrids which are widely received by growers for cut flowers or for potted plants and they command a multimillion dollar industry world over. During 2012, the global trade of orchid cut flowers is to the tune of US $ 504 million, comprising of Dendrobium, Phalaenopsis and Cymbidium hybrids. Though it has a great potential in our country, with its ideal climatic conditions, the progress made in this field of orchid trade is not significant. This deserves more attention than what it is getting now. With as many as 154,000 registered hybrids and the ongoing fresh addition to the list, and coupled with the technological interventions (tissue culture) has revolutionized the orchid hybrid world. Millions of Phalaenopsis hybrids are produced in Taiwan and exported. The ease at which the breeding takes place in the family Orchidaceae has produced tri and tetra generic hybrids of superior quality.

Vanilla beans from Vanilla planifolia (Picture 12) orchid has been the only orchid having commercial use but not for its flowers but for its beans used for extraction of its essence vanillin. Vanilla is only second to another expensive spice saffron because of its labor intensive work. Vanilla is used for its flavoring in food and ice cream and also in aroma therapy Orchids are not only aesthetically and commercially important; besides this, they have a definite role to play in the ecosystem. Orchids are considered as the indicators of health of the ecosystem. Their presence is an indication that the ecosystem is relatively undisturbed. The mutual relationship orchids have with other biota in the ecosystem is well studied right from its germination with symbiotic association of mycorrhiza. In the absence of a nourishing tissue endosperm, the orchid embryo has to germinate with the help of mycorrhizal association. Further, as the orchid plant grows in nature, the flowers which are much sought after by the pollinators for nectar, food and even as its partner has a mutual relationship with the insects. It is vital to have the insect population along with orchids for mutual survival, they are not exclusive any more. Conservation approaches encompasses the host tree, insects, mycorrhiza and all related biotas. Orchids also have medicinal properties and many folklore medicines are prepared and used. Chinese have been growing orchids for the past 5000 years and use Vandas, Aerides and Cymbidiums for medicinal purposes. In ancient China, the stimulating and fragrant Dendrobiums and Cymbidiums were linked to sexuality. Orchids are rich in alkaloids, flavonoids, carbohydrates and other chemicals. Leaves, tubers and pseudobulbs are used for edible purposes. A concoction known as ‘Salep’ is prepared from the pseudobulbs. In India, orchids such as Acampe, Bulbophyllum, Coelogyne, Cymbidium, Dendrobium, Eria, Liparis, Pholidota and Vanda
are used for medicinal purposes. Orchids are also culturally important with orchid flowers being symbol of love. Chinese offer orchid flowers to the newly married couple wishing them to have many children. In India, flowers of Aerides (Draupadi pushpa) and Rhynchostylis retusa (Seeta pushpa)(Picture. 13) are adorned by ladies as symbols of sanctity and womanhood and used at the time of spring festival in Assam. Flowers of Papilionanthe teres is offered to lord Buddha. In Surinam, people deck their bodies with plants of Dendrobium acinaciforme before preparing for headhunting. The Malayas use Dendrobium crumenatum and Cymbidium finlaysonianum to sprinkle water on the bereaved person to prevent the ghost of the dead person from haunting the village.

In the Indian orchid scenario with about 1330 species under 186 genera which almost covers
5.98 percent of the World orchid flora and 6.83 percent of flowering plants in India, is a formidable situation. This orchid flora is mainly distributed in NE parts of India, Western Ghats, Andaman & Nicobar Islands, Eastern Ghats, NW of India.

Out of these 1330 species about 200 of them are important ornamentally and has a great potential for hybridizing to produce some of the best hybrids. Several species of genera of Aerides, Bulbophyllums, Coelogyne, Dendrobiums, Paphiopedilums, Renanthera, Rhynchostylis and Vandas produce remarkable flowers which are highly attractive and an ideal breeding material. Species like Renanthera imschootiana and Vanda coerulea are much sought after by the growers (Picture 14). Even though there is so much of potential for commercializing orchid growing both for cut flowers and potted plants, India has
made little head way in this regard. This arena certainly deserves much more attention than what it is getting now.

Without a mention about conservation of orchids, it will be a gross injustice to this wonderful and much sought after flowering plant in the entire world. Orchids in nature exists in tropical jungles and temperate grass lands and it is extremely important that this ‘gene pool’ wherever they are should be conserved for posterity. Without this diversity it will be difficult to produce newer hybrids. Earth’s resources particularly natural resources are being exploited indiscriminately all over the world either for various developmental activities or for other economic reasons. It is important that the natural habitats of these orchid populations along with the other biotas in the ecosystem be protected by declaring the areas as sanctuaries. This can also be supplemented by maintaining the threatened ones on the botanical gardens and orchidariums. Till the other day, where the interrelationship between different biota has been a fine tuned mechanism with little concern of upsetting this balance. Of late however, man’s greed appears to have overcome his wisdom and an irreparable damage is being caused to the ecosystem resulting in tremendous pressure on the plant population for its sustenance and survival. As we are talking about this and reading this article, how many orchids which are yet to be discovered have vanishedfrom the earth because of man’s greed rather than need.

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