Heather N. Kolich, ANR Agent, UGA Extension Forsyth County

I recently visited the State Botanical Gardens in Athens where orchids are featured throughout the tropical Main Conservatory inside the visitor’s center. With an estimated 28,000 species in more than 800 genera, orchids are believed to be the largest and most diverse family of flowering plants. Here are some more amazing facts about orchids.

Orchids grow on other plants and rocks. Most orchids (~70%) are epiphytic, which means they anchor to other plants or trees rather than sinking roots into soil. Epiphytes draw nourishment from organic matter, like rotting leaves, that gathers in limb angles or bark crevices of trees, but they don’t take nutrients from the host plant. Lithophytic orchids grow on rocks, drawing moisture from humid air and nutrients from collected organic matter.

A large atrium with glass walls and windows at a conservatory in Georgia.
The Tropical Garden in the visitor center of the UGA State Botanical Gardens in Athens features hundreds of amazing plants, including numerous orchid species. Photo courtesy of UGA.
Brilliant pink orchids blooming from the bark of a tree.
Most orchids are epiphytes; they grown on trees and draw nutrients from decaying organic matter collected in branch angles and bark crevices. Photo by Carlos Macedonio on Unsplash.

Orchids grow nearly everywhere. Orchids exhibit spectacular specializations and diversity. They are present on all continents except Antarctica. They can grow at sea level and at elevations up to 14,000 feet. One species native to the southeastern U.S., Habenaria repens, the water-spider orchid, even grows in water.

Vanilla comes froman orchid that grows on a massive, evergreen vine. Native to Mexico, Central and northern South America, Vanilla planifolia is a semi-epiphytic orchid that starts life as a terrestrial plant. As the vine climbs up a host tree, it loses its attachment to earth. Cultivated vanilla plants are hand pollinated.

A closeup image of a vanilla orchid. The bloom is a light green with a bit of yellow in the center.
Vanilla, one of the most popular flavors worldwide, grows from the Vanilla species of orchid. Photo courtesy of the Chicago Botanic Garden.

Orchids have been around for over 90 million years. Orchids may be among the original flowering plants, and they’re still evolving into new species.

A not so amazing fact is that my earliest efforts with orchids proved unsuccessful; however, I successfully rescued an abandoned orchid in 2020. I thought it was a fake plant until I saw it turning yellow in our mostly dark office. I took it home, nursed it back to health, and repotted it from its thimble-sized container (see how in the next post).

Four years later, my orchid has grown and needs a larger pot. After my visit to the State Botanical Gardens, where orchids grow anchored to trees as they do in nature, I considered trying to mount it to a branch from some recent tree pruning. The daily watering requirement for mounted orchids, and the need to bring it inside for the winter, however, dissuaded me.

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