What orchids live in a rainforest
Origin of tropical beauty
The first orchid-like plant developed around 60 million years ago. At that time it did not float in the treetops of a rainforest as it does today, but grew on the ground in Indonesia. It probably took many millions of years until she established her life on trees and without soil as a source of food.
Only a few imprints on stone, so-called fossils, were found. The delicate-leaved primeval plant was not particularly suitable for this. The rare finds have been estimated by researchers to be around 15 million years old.
In the air, on the ground and on stone
Most tropical orchids are so-called epiphytes, from the Greek "epi" for "on" and "phyton" for "plant"), that is, they grow on other plants. In the treetops of the tropical rainforest, they get exactly the amount of sun and shade they need. Some of the roots cling to branches and twigs, others soar into the air.
Food is what is deposited on the branches from rotted plant parts and what the rain and the high humidity bring. So orchids are extremely frugal. In addition to the orchids that live as epiphytes on trees, there are also species that are native to the ground, a few even on rocks.
The history of the development of the orchid is not yet complete. Even today it continues to produce new shapes and colors, so-called natural hybrids, in which even different orchid genera can be successfully fertilized with the help of eager insects.
While there are around 250 species in Europe, around 800 are found in Australia, 2000 in Africa, around 9000 in South America and even 14,000 in Asia. Nine out of ten species are native to the tropics.
And yet the beauties do not only thrive in warm areas. Some even occur at altitudes of over 4000 meters in the Himalayas or the South American Andes. Except in arid deserts and in eternal ice there are orchids all over the world.
What makes the flower so special
The orchid has characteristics that no other family of plants has: as long as it has buds, it sticks upwards. When it blooms, the flowers turn 180 degrees downwards. The smallest orchid flowers are only a few millimeters in size, the largest up to 20 centimeters.
Some only bloom for a day, others for months, such as the lady's slipper species. Its six petals are not uniform, but mirror-symmetrical: There are three outer so-called sepals and three inner so-called petals. While two of the petals are uniform, the middle one is lip-shaped. The so-called lip is the lowest petal and should offer the insects as comfortable a landing place as possible.
No orchid without a mushroom
The male stamens and the female pistil are independent sexual organs in all flowering plants. Not so with the orchid: They have grown together in a columnar shape. At the top of the column sits the male anthers. The pollen sticks together in packages.
If an insect comes, such a pollen package attaches itself to the animal. When visiting the next orchid blossom, it strips the package on the female, sticky stigma. The scar is on the underside of the column and is protected by a small membrane. This prevents it from pollinating itself from fallen seeds.
Orchid seeds are microscopic in size. Unlike the seeds of other plants, they do not contain any nutrients of their own. They need a small thread fungus for their nutrition. The threads of this fungus migrate into the sperm cells of the orchid, where they are decomposed and consumed as food. The seedlings cannot survive without this fungus.
The development phase takes half a year to a year, depending on the species. Only when the seedling develops its first green color, its chlorophyll, can it do without the fungal community. It takes another four to five years for the first bloom, with the "Vanda" even 15 years.
What the peoples knew about orchids
The oldest writings on the cultivation of orchids come from China around 500 BC. In Europe it was the Greek Theophrastus who described the Central European orchid in the third century BC.
He referred to them for the first time in his work on the "History of Plants" as "orchis", the Greek word for "testicles", because the testicle-shaped tubers struck him as a characteristic. The name "Orchis" was later adopted for the whole family of plants.
Even before the Spaniards conquered America, orchids were known and loved by the Indian tribes. With the conquest of the New World, Spanish sailors soon brought the first tropical orchids to Europe.
A botanist of the time, Hieronymus Bock, described the foreign creature in 1552: as something that looks like a hornet below and like a bird above. The idea that this being has its origin in a seed did not occur to him. He thought it was derived from a thrush.
The first orchid bloomed in Holland in 1615. The interest of the Europeans in the exotic grew. So extensive imports developed because the breeding did not want to succeed. The secret of the thread fungus as food for the seedling was still unknown until the end of the 19th century.
In 1856 the first cross of two orchids through artificial pollination blossomed in the English nursery of John Dominy. But he was just lucky. He probably sowed the seeds on the base of the mother plant, where the filamentous fungus already existed. Orchids that are commercially available today are without exception cultivars.
Many natural orchid species are threatened, partly by the deforestation of the rainforests, but also by agricultural use and by foragers. Therefore, regulations were necessary to regulate trade and export. As a result, all orchid species are now listed in the appendix to the Washington Convention on the Protection of Species.
Some areas have been declared a nature reserve in order to give extremely rare and endangered orchids a chance of survival. Because if this or that orchid no longer existed, rare insects would soon also die out. The interaction of special species with special pollinators is particularly pronounced with orchids.
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