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


Anonymous on February 25, 2014


I once received a chocolate scented orchid as a present it lasted for many years and bloomed two or three times a year, i was so sad when it finally gave up the ghost!


I was shown one of those once at a nursery and it had delicate yellow blossoms with some brown on it. The smell was amazing, but I'm even more impressed you got it to bloom again and again.

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