This first appeared as “Spotlight on OrnHort: The Exotic Orchid” in the IR-4 Newsletter 48(3):8.
Orchids have been regarded as one of the most prized flowering plants, especially the large flowering tropical species. During the Victorian era, plant collectors explored tropical zones and brought back to Europe many different species. Many of the Latin species names of the collect plants are derived from those collectors or their wealthy sponsors. In the 18th and 19th centuries, only the wealthy could afford these expeditions to source new orchids or provide the special hothouse cultivation orchids required upon their arrival in Europe.
The Orchid family originated back in the early Cretaceous period (about 120 million years ago) and represents one of the two largest plant families. Orchids naturally exist on every continent except Antarctica and species have adapted to temperate and tropical regions. many temperate species have small subtle flowers, while tropical species tend to have large showy prominent flowers in every color or the rainbow. There are at least 28,000 species currently accepted with some of the commonly known genera being Dendrobium, Phalaenopsis, Oncidium, Cattleya, and Vanilla. Yes, vanilla flavoring is extracted from the seed pod of an orchid.
Fortunately for us, propagators and growers have figured out the mysteries of growing the showy tropical genera and their hybrids. in addition to honing in on the optimal light, moisture and fertilizer needs, propagating orchids occurs today mainly via vegetative methods: division, back bulbs, keiki (little plantlets), aerial cuttings, and meristem or tissue culture. For breeding and hybridization to produce new cultivars, seed germination for many orchids require mycorrhizae fungi to survive and thrive. While there are several pests and diseases that impact orchids during production, management products are available for all but viruses which need to be managed through good sanitation and vector control. Here at the IR-4 Project we have screened various tools to manage Erwinia bacterial diseases on a couple orchid species along with screening insecticide crop safety.
Today, orchids are still prized as elite flowers, but now they are affordably priced and can commonly be purchased in garden centers, florists’ shops and even grocery stores!