Orchids: Wild, Weird & Wonderful

When the winter doldrums set in and I find myself longing for something alive and beautiful to brighten my home, an orchid is my first choice. Fortunately these once exotic and expensive plants are often priced less than a bouquet of fresh flowers. This coupled with the fact that they require little care, can bloom for up to four months, and can, with a little luck, bloom more than once make them a winner in my book.


With over 30,000 species and 100,000 hybrids, it's no wonder some of nature's strangest plant specimens are orchids. Although thought of as a tropical plant, they grow on every continent, in every climate, from the Arctic Circle to the Macquarie Islands near Antarctica. The smallest orchid is the size of a dime, while the largest weigh several hundred pounds. The vanilla orchid (and its vanilla bean) is the only commercially grown orchid crop. Some orchid flowers bloom for a few hours and others last up to half a year.

Legend has it that in 1818, William John Swainson was collecting plants in Rio de Janeiro. He sent a box of tropical plants he had acquired to London. As a packing material he used orchids. Surprisingly, one of the orchids bloomed on arrival, and Londoners were astonished by the unusual shape and colors of the flower. That single flower triggered "orchid fever," which resulted in many deaths in pursuit of the plants. This may be a myth, but it is no exaggeration that orchid hunting and an extreme interest in the plants has existed since Victorian times.

The rarest orchid is considered to be the Dendrophylax or the "Ghost Orchid." It is also one of the most sought after plants. Though native to the West Indies, many believe that they are no longer found anywhere but the Florida swamps. They are also referred to as the "Leafless Orchid" because all you see is a tangled spooky mess of grayish roots clinging to a tree in the swamp. Instead of leaves performing the process of photosynthesis, the roots do the job. Picture an exquisite white flower amidst seemingly dead gray roots that looks like it's floating in mid-air, and there you have it. To make this orchid even more bizarre and interesting, it is only pollinated by the giant sphinx moth.

Orchids have a bilateral symmetry similar to a human face and that is why they are so visually pleasing to us. There are also orchids that look like animals. The rare Monkey Face (Dracula simia) orchid grows in the cloud forests at high elevations in southeastern Ecuador and Peru. The elegant White Egret Orchid (Habenaria radiata) looks just like a… white egret. The flower looks like the bird is spreading its fluffy white feathers, getting ready to take off. The Holy Ghost Orchid (Peristeria elata) looks like it has a hidden creature inside it, an entire dove, to be exact.

The library owns a number of books, audiobooks, and DVDs about orchids. Here are just a few:

Better Homes and Gardens Orchid Gardening
Understanding Orchids: An Uncomplicated Guide to Growing the World's Most Exotic Plants by William Cullina
Orchids for Every Home: The Beginner's Guide to Growing Beautiful Easy-care Orchids by Wilma Wittershausen
A Passion for Orchids: The Most Beautiful Orchid Portraits and their Artists by Jack Kramer
The Cloud Garden: The True Story of Adventure, Survival and Extreme Horticulture by Tom Hart Dyke
The Orchid in Lore and Legend by Luigi Berliocchi
Orchid Fever: A Horticultural Tale of Love, Lust, and Lunacy by Eric Hansen
Fantasy Orchids (DVD)

The Denver Botanic Gardens is currently featuring their Orchid Showcase that will run through February 24. Hundreds of blooming orchids are on display and free orchid re-potting demonstrations are offered each Saturday and Sunday at 12:30 p.m. Do yourself a favor and attend. If you don't come out on a quest to find your own orchid, you are a better person than I.

Written by Sara on February 18, 2014


BR on February 18, 2014


Nothing like a blooming orchid to add cheer on a short winter day. The pictures you've included here make me want to travel and see more. Thanks for the reading suggestions, too.


I got to see a Ghost Orchid while visiting the Corkscrew Swamp Sanctuary in south Florida. It was beautiful. I've bought some orchids during travels, but have never been too successful getting them to thrive in our dry climate.

Anonymous on February 18, 2014


This is what we need for our house. Winter is becoming a drag. How very strange those orchids look. Tiny faces. But I like them because they are unique. Thank you.


My favorite orchid is the slipper orchid, Paphiopedilum. They are so beautifully veined and rich in color, but unfortunately not long lasting. I have also never had any luck getting them to bloom again. I have great luck with Phalaenopsis orchids. They are the ones that are the most common in stores, are reasonably priced and there are a number of growers in Denver. I try to buy locally grown orchids because they seem to last longer with their bloom stalks lasting for months. I've also gotten them to bloom again and again without much effort especially in a north facing window and that really makes you feel accomplished : )

Leigh Ann on February 19, 2014


Orchids are truly amazing & beautiful--they look most alien and otherworldly--which I think adds to their mystique. How fun & it sounds pretty easy to enjoy them in our homes, too. Thank you for sharing this cool info on orchids, Sara!


Check out the Phalaenopsis orchid called Kaleidoscope. It looks so unusual, but is getting to be one you see more often. I love the gold color with the purple veining.

Rose Ann on February 22, 2014


What orchids survive best in the home in this dry climate? I bought the ones at the grocery store and they are suppose to be fairly harty but it died. Any suggestions?


Sometimes it has nothing to do with you and everything to do with the plant itself and the way it was raised. I have great luck with the most common orchids, the Phalaenopsis (or moth orchid). If I'm buying an orchid I always look at the growing medium in the pot. If it is regular dirt or really packed together moss, stay away. Orchids should be growing in a loose growing medium like bark or volcanic rock. Look for their roots to be thick and green. If you can't see their roots popping up in the pot, they may be buried and rotting below. I'll even pull the plant up in the pot to see the roots. You want them to be healthy looking. Orchid blooms last when room temperatures are between 50 and 80 degrees. Mine thrive with room temperatures in the high 60's. Water them sparingly. I probably water mine every week to 10 days and then I take them to the sink and let water flow through the pot until it comes out the bottom. Don't let them sit in water as their roots will rot and then they die. They like a south or east window, but mine do great in a north window. Just don't let them get too hot as their leaves and blooms will burn. Also I have the best luck with orchids that are locally grown. You can tell this by their tags and they may be slightly more expensive, but it's worth it because they are likely to be adapted to our dry climate. One final suggestion concerns humidity. My orchids like to live bunched together creating their own humidity. If you only have a single plant, mist it occasionally as they are a tropical plant. Good luck : )

Anonymous on February 23, 2014


Orchid Thief by Susan Orlean was very interesting.


You are so right and the library owns the book in regular and large print, the eBook, the book on CD and the movie based on the book, Adaptation. Thanks for the reminder. When I saw the Ghost Orchid in Florida, I was immediately reminded of the movie and their quest for this treasure.

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