Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Orchids Warm and Cold

Of all the flowers on earth, orchids are particularly fascinating. Not only are they beautiful to look at, but they often bring a bit of wonder and mystery with them. Although widespread in distribution, many of them can only be found in isolated, nearly inaccessible places--volcanic mountainsides, dense jungles, deep swamps, etc.

Beginning quite seriously in the 19th century, orchid enthusiasts have devoted years and whole lifetimes to discovering as well as cultivating new types of these flowering wonders. Although most orchids are obtained these days from nurseries that specialize in cultivating these plants, many of them being developed through hybridization, it is advantageous to know a little of their natural history.

Orchids are herbacious plants of which tens of thousands of species are known, with more still being discovered.  They exhibit a startling range of color and form, which has contributed greatly to public interest. Master gardeners often delight in growing a wide range of orchids to demonstrate their mastery of the arts of cultivation.

Orchids grow everywhere in the earth except for the desert and polar regions. About 85% of species occur in tropical or subtropical regions, but this leaves a huge number that may be found in much cooler zones. In some parts of the Himalayas orchids constitute the most abundantly represented family of plants in terms of sheer number of species.

By far the greatest number of orchids occur in three large tropical belts:

  • Tropical Africa (including islands to the east in the Indian Ocean). These largely belong to the genera (families) Angnecum, Bulbophyllum and Disa. Orchids from this region are not so widely cultivated as ones coming from other tropical lands, but Africa nonetheless has many interesting species.
  • Tropical Asia. This region, which covers Indonesia and other islands, along with mainland Southeast Asia, is particularly rich in orchid genera. Typical of the region are the large genera Dendrobium, Eria and Bulbophyllum and many smaller ones as well.
  • Tropical America. The region is made up of Mexico, the Central American nations, and the tropical part of South America. Isolated from the rest of the world for millennia, this region contains an unusually high number of indigenous orchid genera, many of which contain hundreds of individual species. Among the large indigenous genera are Epidendrum, Pleurothallis and Oncidium; many smaller genera found here also contribute more than their share to orchids that have found favor among cultivators the world over.

In the temperate zones of the southern hemisphere may also be found many orchds, though not in so abundant number as in the tropics. In southern Africa the Disa and Calanthe genera furnish a few species judged valuable to cultivation. Australia has a number of genera in common with the tropical Asia. Southern South America boasts a number of temperate orchids, but by the estimation of orchid devotees, they are greatly overshadowed by those
from the vaster tropical-zone part of the continent.

in the norhern hemisphere's temperate areas, we should take note of the United States, particularly the New England/norhteastern region, as well as Canada. There we find about 20 native genera, whose member species grow mostly in swamps and moist grounds. The most familiar of these are the Cypripediuins or Lady Slippers.

Europe also has many native orchids, but undoubtedly the most famous and showy is the Bee Orchid (Ophrys apifera). The Bee Orchid grows on dry or semi-dry turf, often in open areas within woodlands. Bee Orchids are common near the Mediterranean coast of Europe, and grows (albeit less abundantly) as far north as Germany and the UK.

Orchids differ greatly from one another as far as ease of cultivating, but most of them are not the difficult plants that common wisdom would have it. The most up-to-date guide to today's orchid cultivation, without a doubt, is Orchid Care Expert by Nigel Howard, which can be downloaded online. Howard's wonderful guide will furnish a thorough education on the subject. Also, check out the Orchid Secrets web site, which has an ever-growing library of articles on all aspects of orchid cultivation.

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