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Orchidaceae (Orchids)

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Few flowers have captured the esteem and appreciation that comes so readily to orchids the world over. Their unusual shapes, delicate symmetry, and exotic splashes of color have made them sought after symbols of love and beauty to many cultures through the centuries. Even now, the orchid boasts dedication from many clubs and societies, and spotlight roles in museum and botanical garden exhibitions all over the world.

The orchid family of flowering plants is one of the largest (and possibly the largest) on the planet, including over 20,000 species in its ranks—and we still aren’t done finding them! Late in 2012, botanists announced the discovery of two more orchids in Cuba, a country where many species of orchids grow native. Orchids thrive in warm and wet climates in places like Hawaii, Brazil, Ecuador, Mexico, and the Philippines, but they can be found on almost every continent. While different species can look radically different from one to the next, all orchids may be classified in one of two categories: monopodial and sympodial. Monopodial orchids feature a long stem that grows up from a single point above layered and opposite leaves on the bottom of the plant. These orchids will periodically produce new leaves as the top layer, and shed the older leaves at the bottom. Sympodial orchids produce new growth laterally via what appears to be a continuous creeping stem, but is actually a system of meristems and pseudobulbs that store nutrients for the plant. After that, orchids show an amazing amount of variety. Some may grow in the sun or the shade. Some may have wide or narrow leaves. The petals can be large and round or long and skinny. With such diversity in the family, describing the orchid is difficult, but what all orchids have in common is their beauty.

The beauty of the orchid has not only made it a popular houseplant of today, but also a symbol of love, royalty, luxury, and fertility dating back well into ancient Greek and Chinese culture. The Greeks believed that through eating certain parts of orchids, a man or a woman could control the gender outcome of their children. Confucius used the orchid many times in his writings to symbolize nobility of character, and the flower is one of “The Four Gentleman,” or noble plants depicted in Chinese art. In Mexico, beans from a native orchid were used to create a beverage for use in ceremonies and celebrations by Mexican civilizations. Cortés later introduced these beans to Europe, and now vanilla is one of the most widely used flavoring agents in the world. The Victorians of the 1800s prized orchids as a symbol of status and wealth—only the well-to-do could afford to seek out, purchase, and maintain orchids in a greenhouse. The speckles and spots that are seen on some orchids have also been said by Christians to represent the blood of Christ, making it a popular feature in arrangements and floral décor for Christian holidays. The orchid is the national flower of several countries, including Singapore, Belize, Brazil, Honduras, Guatemala, Hong Kong, and Costa Rica.

Because the orchid family is so diverse, the species of your orchid will determine how much sunlight, water, and heat it will need. For the most part, it is recommended that orchids be watered every five to twelve days, with some wanting to have moist soil and others wanting to be kept dry in between (as one of our staff found out, moth orchids don’t want to be watered every day—overwatering can cause leaves to yellow and die). Your orchid should be fertilized like any other plant, but with fertilizer specifically for orchids. If you would like to repot your orchid, you will need to know in which growing media your species thrives—orchids will grow in anything from bark to moss to charcoal to soil, and putting your orchid in the wrong media could kill it. You may trim any dead blooms or foliage, and should trim back the stem after the plant is finished blooming. Be sure to keep your orchid in a well-ventilated area at approximately 60-80 degrees.