Orchids: Columbia’s Floral Masterpiece

July 3, 2012
By Mary Syrett

Orchids are among the world’s most exquisite flowers. So fascinated are people with orchids that many countries have adopted specific varieties of them as their respective national flower. Belize features the Black Orchid; Brazil, the Cattleya Orchid; and Guatemala, the White Nun Orchid.

Orchids are particularly prolific in the tropics, where many species grow on tree branches. In temperate zones, orchids often grow on the ground.

Orchid Facts

Humans regularly eat only one type of orchid fruit: vanilla. This amazing flavor was introduced to Europe by New World explorer Hernando Cortés, after Mexico’s last emperor, Montezuma II, gave him a taste.

Orchids are not parasitic. Rather, they are air plants that attach themselves to tree bark. Over 50 orchid species have been found growing on a single tree. They do not “steal” nutrients from the tree.

Many people associate orchids with the tropics and suppose that when found in cooler climates, they grow only in greenhouses. That is not true; orchids are the most diverse group of all flowering plants and are found in virtually every habitat where flowers grow.

Orchid season in South Carolina begins in early spring, when the first pinkish-purple blooms of fairy slippers emerge in moist woodlands. It ends when the spiraling flowers of ladies’ tresses begin to wither, usually in August.

Is an Orchid Really an Asparagus?

Orchids make it difficult for evolutionary biologists to locate them precisely in the plant tree family. But recently, studies of the DNA of orchids reveal surprises, chief among them the fact that orchids are part of the asparagus group, close kin to these vegetables.


Botanists believe the evolutionary history of orchids has been obscured by oddities surrounding the flower’s distinctive pollen. The orchid family would likely have died out like the dinosaurs did if insects had chosen to feed on simpler plants and not on orchids. Orchids wouldn’t have been pollinated, and without pollination they would never have grown seeds, while self-pollinating plants nearby would have seeded themselves, thereby taking up more and more space, light, and water. Eventually orchids would have been pushed to the margins of evolution and likely vanished from the scene. Instead, orchids have diversified and become in terms of sheer numbers, the biggest flowering plant family on the planet. How is this possible? Because each orchid species has over time made itself irresistible.

Bamboozling Bugs.

Some floral species look so much like their favorite insects that the insect mistakes them for kin; when it lands on the flower to visit, pollen sticks to its body. When the insect repeats the mistake on another orchid, the pollen from the first flower gets deposited on the stigma of the second.

Other orchid species look like the mate of their pollinator, so the bug tries to mate with one orchid and then another; in doing so it spreads pollen from flower to flower. Lady’s slipper orchids have a special hinged lip that traps bees and forces them to pass through sticky threads of pollen as they struggle to escape from the plant.

No one knows for sure whether orchids evolved to complement insects or whether orchids evolved first; or whether somehow these two life forms evolved simultaneously, which might explain how two seemingly different organisms depend so much on one another.

Growing Orchids.

The diversity of orchid flowers is unrivalled in the plant world. The reason for this diversity lies in the orchid’s amazing environmental adaptability. Some orchids are difficult to grow. But thankfully, there are dozens of orchid varieties, many of which happily grow on a sunny windowsill.

For your best chance at success in growing orchids around Columbia, start by choosing a minimally fussy variety that is adapted to the type of growing conditions you can provide. If possible, purchase when they’re in bloom; so you’ll know what you are striving for to grow in your garden.

Caring for Orchids.


With vastly different orchid species, it is difficult to give general care instructions. However, the way an orchid looks can provide clues to its preferences for light, water, and growing medium.

A plant with few leaves or leathery leaves indicates that it has a high light requirement. If, however, the leaves are soft and limp, the plants are very light sensitive and should not be placed in a sunny window.

As a general rule, orchids are light-hungry plants. For best growing results, they should get 12 to 14 hours of light each day, year-round. South- and east-facing windows are usually the best place for orchids.


Orchids should be watered once a week. The growing medium should be allowed to dry out between watering, and excess water should not come in contact with orchid roots.

It is difficult to contemplate gardening around Columbia without thinking of orchids. With their wide range of color, form and size, orchids challenge gardeners to use their ingenuity in creating new designs and effects in landscape arrangements. Enjoy and be comforted in knowing you are contributing to the beauty of the natural world.

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