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Swiss Orchid Foundation
at the Herbarium Jany Renz

University of Basel

Wuhrmattstrasse 13
CH-4103 Bottmingen

© 2015 Swiss Orchid Foundation

botinst
Botanical Institute
University of Basel

Frequently asked questions about orchids

Phillip Cribb, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew

1. How many orchids are there?

The best current estimate is about 25,000 species worldwide. This estimate comes from the World Checklist of Monocots published on the website of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, and assembled and edited by Rafael Govaerts with the help of orchid specialists worldwide.

2. Where are orchids found?

Orchids are found in every continent except in Antarctica. They range as far north as Greenland and within the Arctic Circle in both Eurasia and America, and as far south as Tierra del Fuego in the Americas, the Cape in Africa, and Macquarie Island in Australia.

3. Which is the richest country for orchids?

Ecuador is the country with the greatest number of native orchids. Over 3,800 species have so far been recorded from this Andean country. In the Old World, the richest country is Papua New Guinea where over 3000 species have so far been reported.

4. Are orchids found in Europe?

Yes, orchids have been reported from every European country, including the Azores, Canary Islands, Iceland and all the Mediterranean islands. Over 250 species have, so far, been reported from Europe.

5. Are orchids parasites?

Although epiphytes are not parasitic on the trees on which they grow, all orchids are parasitic on the fungi that grow in their roots. If the right fungus first infects an orchid at the seed stage, the seedling orchid cells remove nutrients from the fungus to assist their growth, thereby parasitizing the fungus.

6. Are orchids rare?

Given the large number of wild orchid species, it is not surprising that some are rare in the wild. A considerable number of tropical species have only been seen on less than ten occasions, a reflection of their inaccessible habitat in the tops of forest trees. All orchids depend upon a fungus for germination and growth, at least in their early stages. The presence or absence of an appropriate fungus, itself dependent on environmental factors, such as soil type, climate, shade and plant cover, controls the distribution of orchids. If the appropriate fungus is naturally rare, then the orchid will likewise be rare.

7. Are orchids threatened?

Many are threatened at the present day. The reasons can be varied. Some are naturally rare, confined to particular habitats that are themselves rare. Others are threatened by habitat loss. In the tropics, this is largely the result of logging, mining, forest fires or other human activities. These are, by far, the major reasons for orchid rarity. Some of the showier and horticulturally desirable species are threatened by over-collection for trade. Others are threatened because they are used in native medicine, for example, in Traditional Chinese Medicine.

8. Are orchids protected?

Orchids are protected by national or local laws in many countries. In Europe, they are mostly protected by national laws, and it is illegal to pick or dig up orchids without a permit, except on one's own land. Orchids are also protected in other ways. All international trade in orchids is controlled by the Convention in International trade of Endangered Fauna and Flora (CITES). CITES export permits are required for the movement of all orchids between countries. Some countries, including all in the European Union, also require appropriate import permits. A few exceptions exist, for cut flowers, vanilla pods and some selected artificial hybrids of no conservation interest. Information on what can and cannot be traded internationally can be found on the CITES website.

9. Are orchids difficult to grow?

Many orchids are relatively easy to grow and flower, especially some of the tropical epiphytic species, which are sold in nurseries, flower shops and supermarkets. They can be grown in pits in a greenhouse or often on a windowsill (a north-facing one with no direct sunshine is best) at home. They are usually grown in pots with an inert compost based on bark, rock-wool or rock, often with added charcoal to keep the compost sweet. The main cause of orchid fatality in cultivation is over-watering (watering well once a week and never leaving the pot standing in water is sufficient for most plants, fertilising with a standard fertiliser at quarter strength) and low temperature. Some orchids are hardy in Europe, but most nursery plants originate in the tropics or subtropics and need to be kept warm, never letting the temperature drop below 12°C.

10. Can orchids be grown from seed?

Yes, but they need specialist treatment. Orchids have micro-seeds that comprise an embryo and a seed coat. They contain no endosperm, the foodstuff that sustains the seedlings of most plants, such as beans and peas. In the wild, they can only germinate if the appropriate fungus attacks them, the fungus eventually providing the nutrients that allow the orchid to germinate and grow. The effect of the fungus can be copied in laboratory conditions by sowing the sterilised seed on a nutrient gel (agar). The embryo can then take up nutrients directly from the agar, allowing germination and growth. Orchid seedlings are usually transferred to a compost when they have developed green leaves.

11. Are orchids useful?

Yes, in many ways. The world trade in orchids for cut flowers and pot plants is worth millions of dollars every year and benefits many countries, including some of the poorer ones. Orchids have useful properties and some are used medicinally, especially in traditional medicine cultures, for example in China, Southeast Asia and India. Vanilla is one of the best-known orchids. The essence derived from its fermented pods is a major commodity in some countries, such as Madagascar and Réunion, bringing in much needed foreign revenue. It is a constituent of many foodstuffs, drinks, such as Coca Cola and Pepsi, and scents.