Orchids from elsewhere

"RONA: Greenhouse" by Bill_Barber on Flickr

It’s funny to think, but all those potted plants one sees for sale in the plant sections of places like Home Depot or the grocery store are native to somewhere. Many of them have become so common as houseplants that it’s hard to envision them growing out in the wild, in some steamy rainforest or a dry, sandy desert. In the case of the orchids usually found in such stores, the vast majority come from tropical rainforests where they grow as epiphytic plants, on the limbs or trunks of towering trees. The Phalaenopsis orchids such as the ones shown above are the genus most often sold in chain stores, and are native to tropical Asia, as are the Paphiopedilum orchids such as the ladyslipper I own.

"Cyrtochilum divaricatum" aka Oncidium costatum by Quimbaya on Flickr

Cattleya orchids, on the other hand, come from Central and South America. Oncidiums, such as the one shown above, are found primarily in the Central Americas. Dendrobium orchids range throughout tropical Australasia, as do the Cymbidiums. And these are just a small sprinkling of the many genera of orchids, representing the groups most commonly found in chain and garden stores.

"Wild Orchids in the Lyon Orchid Garden" by Dick on Picasa

One thing nearly all of these groups have in common is that they’re air plants, growing above the ground with their roots exposed. They collect their moisture and nutrients from the air and rainwater that runs down the tree or whatever substrate they’re growing on. Because of this, they can only grow wild in humid environments such as the rainforests. It’s also why they need special potting medium to keep at home. Since most homes aren’t nearly as humid as the orchid’s tropical habitats, we have to simulate the same conditions. Orchid potting medium is usually quite coarse and absorptive; bark and coconut shell is a common mix. There’s room for air to get through between the large pieces, but the pieces of bark absorb and slowly release moisture to the orchid’s roots, effectively maintaining a “humid” environment in the air pockets. If you planted an orchid in typical potting soil, it would likely suffocate and die, because the roots would rot with the constant moisture and lack of air circulation. Most orchids appreciate a regular misting with water or a tray of water underneath them which helps to keep the leaves from drying out too much, as well.

Cattleya labiata by Cristóbal Alvarado Minic on Flickr

Orchids have a long and storied history as houseplants. They have been artificially cultivated for more than 2000 years. The Chinese would use fragrant species – some of them can have very strong perfumes – to scent their households, placed strategically in a room designed around them. They really caught on in the 18th and 19th century, however, when European explorers began collecting specimens from the regions they visited. It might be that orchids owe their existence as houseplants to a single serendipitous decision made by Sir William Cattley in the early 1800s. Cattley, a British horticulturalist, was unpacking some tropical plants sent to him from South America by a colleague. The collected individuals had been placed between some common plants who were simply intended to be used as packing material. Curiosity must have got the better of Cattley, who decided what the heck, let’s plant some up and see what they do. One of them bloomed for him, producing the beautiful pink flowers above. Presumably his neighbours, when they saw them, said “I want a piece of that action!” and so tropical orchids became introduced into European cultivation. Or something like that. Incidentally, the pink flowers, the first described from their genus, were named by Cattley’s friend and fellow botanist John Lindley in honour of his “discovery”.

"Orchid-222.jpg" by Andy.Schultz on Flickr

It was a while before orchid enthusiasts figured out how to propagate the plants, however. At first, cultivated orchids were all wild specimens collected from the tropics and shipped back overseas. As the interest in orchids grew, so did the number of plants collected from the wild. Needless to say, this sort of free-for-all had a very negative impact on the populations of many of the species, and eventually laws had to be put in place requiring export permits for the species (whether wild-grown or cultivated) in order to control the movement of orchids from their native countries. These days, nearly all tropical orchids require a CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) permit to be shipped across borders, even for those species who have stable populations. From a personal perspective, this seems a little overkill; with all the orchids in cultivation these days, shouldn’t they be focused on making it easier for growers to share cultivated stock to maintain a strong gene pool, rather than harder? After all, the more propagation done using pre-existing cultivated plants, the less people are going to want, or need, to take plants out of the wild. On the other hand, especially for poorer people in the countries where these species grow, it would be a really easy way to make a buck to just go into the forest and collect a whole bunch of orchids, and sell them off to an overseas buyer.

"Orchis mascula", the most common species used to make orchid ice cream; by Inklaar on Flickr

The word “orchid” is derived from orchis, the Greek word for testicle; it references the root bulbs of a terrestrial genus that grows in Greece and the Mediterranean region, whose paired tubers resemble that part of the male anatomy, and were thought to be an excellent aphrodisiac. The genus has now been labeled Orchis, and includes species such as O. mascula, above. These days, they’re still used to make a type of chewy ice cream called salep that resembles salt taffy in consistency. They’re so common that no one bothers to cultivate them, they’re just collected from the wild.

"Cycnoches barthiorum" by douneika on Flickr

Orchid flowers generally last a long time, up to two or three months or more in some species. The reason for this is that many have evolved very complex strategies for achieving pollination, usually ones that require that their pollinator do backflips and jump through hoops to get their reward, and so they need to ensure that their pollinators have enough time to actually do those backflips. Most tropical orchids don’t actually produce nectar as a reward. Instead, they rely on a number of other strategies to attract pollinators. Some encourage the patronage of Euglossine bees (often also known as “orchid bees”). The lady bees just go crazy for perfume, and the males desperately try to collect up as much as they can to offer the female. The orchids provide the bees a source of this perfume. Quite often, specific species of orchid have very specific species of bees that they’re attracting. When the bee comes to collect the perfume, it brushes against the pollen sac of the flower. On the next flower it goes to visit, the pollen sac has been positioned in just such a way that it will come into contact with the female bits, and thus pollinate the flower.

"Phragmipedium Besseae_Kew_2680" by KitLKat on Flickr

The ladyslipper orchids are sneaky plants. Their flowers offer no reward to their pollinators, but instead dupe the poor insects into visiting. They may use an odour to attract individuals to the flowers. Once at close range, shiny bits may resemble honeydew or nectar that the insect can collect. The bug goes to land on what looks like it should be a perch, but turns out to be a slippery wart. The insect tumbles into the flower’s pouch, the only way out of which is, because of the curved lip, up the back wall and through a tunnel that takes it past the plant’s anthers (the male parts), where a pollen sac is deposited on it. In order for the flower to get pollinated, the insect must then fall for the same trick a second time, climb back up through the second tunnel, and brush the appropriately-placed pollen sac against the second flower’s stigma (the female part).

"hand pollinating a vanilla orchid" by glowingz on Flickr

In cultivation, because of the specific requirements of the flowers for pollination, the job usually has to be done by humans. In the case of the vanilla orchid (yes, the same one we use to flavour all sorts of concoctions), the plant won’t produce a pod (actually the orchid’s seed pod) unless it’s pollinated, and so workers go around their plants to look for new flowers and pollinate them by hand. The flowers only last one day, though, so the task must be completed every day over the roughly three month blooming period or else risk losing some potential crop.

"Orchid Display" by Salihan on Flickr

There’s lots more information I could share, but in the interest of length, I’ll leave it there. All in all, pretty interesting plants. There’s an orchid show every spring up in Ottawa; growers bring their best plants for judging, there are displays of different species and hybrids, vendors have orchids and orchid-related paraphernalia for sale. Imagine the sights and smells! I think this year I’ll try to go.


Orchids and haworthia


While I’m on an orchid kick, here is 6/7ths of my orchid collection. I blame it on Julie Zickefoose, this newfound interest in orchids. To be fair, it probably isn’t completely her fault. I’ve always had a love for green things, and have a tendency to collect plants and fill my house with them. There is such great satisfaction to be had in nurturing something, watching it thrive and thank you for your doting with beautiful flowers or lush greenery. I don’t really get cut flowers, as they seem beside the point – within a couple of weeks they’ve all died, and there’s nothing you can do about it. A potted plant will reward you time and again, with a little love and patience.

It’s only natural, then, that this love of green should eventually become focused into a particular area. My love of nature became focused in birds and moths, over time. While all sightings are exciting and have meaning, it’s the ones in these focal groups that really get you going. So it is with plants. And why it’s not completely Julie’s fault. But I think my budding (pardon the pun) interest in orchids and my recent desire to collect them over other equally interesting and worthy groups of plants is probably, at least partly, the result of reading Julie’s blog and her regular posts about her orchid collection. After all, when you read posts like this one, or this, or this, or this, or this … who could possibly resist the urge to go out and collect one or two or several for themselves?


Most likely, though, just on their own, Julie’s posts wouldn’t have tipped me over the edge. About four years ago, Dan bought me an orchid, a tropical ladyslipper hybrid of the genus Paphiopedilum. It was blooming at the time, and I enjoyed admiring the flower and was disappointed when it finally died and dropped off, a few weeks after bringing the plant home. But it was when the plant rebloomed the following winter that I really fell in love with it. Oh, the excitement and satisfaction of that new flower. Especially in combination with the stereotype that orchids are hard to care for and rebloom, I took great pride in that my plant had put out another inflorescence. I took this photo of it, and for a couple of years that was the image on my website’s front page.


Encouraged, perhaps, by my success in reblooming the Paph (as orchid enthusiasts call them; it’s certainly easier to say), I decided to go out and buy another one. This time I got a hybrid of the genus Phalaenopsis, a lovely white-and-fuscia individual, from the same grocery store where Dan had bought the Paph. That store had a pretty good assortment in their flower section, and they had all sorts of orchid types. I’m not sure why I settled on the Phal at the time over the other varieties. The Phalaenopsis orchids are among the easiest to grow at home, it turns out, and these days just about every store with a flower section has at least a few Phals for sale, but I rarely see the other orchid groups anymore. Perhaps Perth just isn’t big enough to support fancy orchids. I enjoyed the blooms on that plant while they lasted, and was delighted when it put out a second flower scape the following year. In all the moving about last year and then this, both of those spikes eventually died, but now that it’s settled again it’s putting out a new one.

I think it was the second orchid, the Phalaenopsis, reblooming that really did me in. Why was I more affected by the orchids than I have been by success with other plants? I don’t know. Maybe it’s that they’re easy to get, and they come in so many colours and varieties. And many are very showy. A lot of other flower groups can fall into one of these categories or another, but I think the combination of all three really appeals to my collector’s nature, and is the same reason that I “collect” birds and moths: easy to see, great diversity, and many are quite showy. With birds and moths, you’re simply collecting names on a list. Plants, however, require space and constant care. I need a room with bigger windows. I would love to have a greenhouse or sunroom addition to the house.

I’ve recently been reading a book called Orchid Fever by Eric Hansen. It’s a book my mom happened to have, which she lent to me shortly after I’d got my first orchids. It sat on my shelf, unread, for a couple of years. The new flower spike on the original Phal, timed with the disappearance of moths and most everything else outside, has tripped my orchid enthusiasm again (I suspect it will become my winter obsession, fueling me through the cold winter months when nature is scarcer; how nice that the plants bloom just when you need it most), and I decided to pick it up. I’m about halfway through. It’s a non-fiction book that explores the world of orchid enthusiasts: growing, collecting and showing tropical orchids. It’s a huge industry, worth about $9 billion globally each year (as of when the book was published in 2000). These days, most orchids are captive-grown in nurseries, rather than collected from the wild. In fact, these days, most of the orchids on the market probably aren’t pure species anymore, instead being artificial hybrids created by orchid enthusiasts to develop new and interesting colours, patterns or shapes of flowers. Hansen offers some interesting insights into many aspects of the cultivated orchid world through his own trips and interviews to learn more about the plants from the people who love them. More on that tomorrow.


Right now most of plants in my study are sitting on a shelf under a grow light. I’d had them on the windowsill, but have been afraid to leave them there while the new cat gets adjusted to the house. The other two never bothered them on the sill, but last week the new guy knocked off my Haworthia, above, from the windowsill. This might be the oldest plant that I own, although I think I myself have only had it about three years. The plants are very hardy, and put out lots of pups as they grow. My original plant was a large pup from a plant my mom had had for years. When I got it, I planted it in that 4″ square container on the left. At the time, it didn’t amount to much more than what’s currently in that 4″ square pot on the left. In three or so years it had grown so much it was overflowing the sides of the pot and I could barely get in with my thin-spouted watering can to water it. I’d been meaning to repot it for a while, but was eventually forced to get around to it when the cat knocked the top-heavy pot off the windowsill. Yes, all those plants came out of that one little 4″ pot on the left. It’s now split between the 4″ square and a 6″ round.

haworthia blooming

The year after I got it, the plant bloomed for me. How thrilled I was! I couldn’t recall my mom’s plant ever blooming. Where I lived at the time, it sat in an east-facing window, a huge picture window that bathed the apartment in bright light. Most of my plants loved that apartment, with few exceptions they all grew fabulously. I’ve moved three times since then, but haven’t found a spot that had nearly a nice light as that apartment. My window here faces west, not east, but gets lots of light. I’m hoping that it might encourage the newly-repotted haworthia to bloom again. They’re a plant of open areas in South Africa, and while they grow alright in darker areas, probably the bright light mimics its natural conditions better.

There are actually quite a lot of varieties of haworthias, too. Enough, in fact, that there’s an actual Haworthia Society of haworthia collectors and growers. I’ve been so pleased with the growth of my haworthia, and was so excited to have it bloom. So why did I get hooked on orchids but not haworthias? Couldn’t tell ya. Maybe I just didn’t have a blogger expounding the virtues of haworthias complete with intriguing photos of their collection at the right time.


Before I wrap up this very long-winded post, I’d also like to point out the couple of non-orchids on my shelf. The little pink impatiens are cuttings I took off my outdoor plant and rooted. The original plants were given to my by our neighbour at the lake, who was very, very generous with her extra seedlings. The colour of this one really appealed to me and I decided to see if I could overwinter it as a cutting. I brought it in with a couple of blooms on it, and it’s continued to grow and bloom and bloom even through the whole ordeal of putting out roots from the cut stem. What a fabulously determined little plant.

And the other, the tall one in the same water dish as the impatiens, is a cutting I took off one of my tomato plants before the frost, the only tomato cutting to root. A couple of weeks ago it started to bloom, and now it’s growing a couple of cherry tomatoes. You can just sort of see the larger blobs on the left side of the plant. The challenge will be getting the tomatoes to ripen. I’m hoping putting it under a grow light where I can lengthen the “daylight” hours might help encourage it.

My posts never seem to end up being what I start out intending them to be. Tomorrow, more on wild tropical orchids.

More on native orchids

Yellow Ladyslipper

Inspired by the discovery of the dried Helleborine in the cedar grove, I did some poking about yesterday for info on wild orchids in Ontario. According to the Orchid Society of the Royal Botanical Gardens in Burlington, Ontario, there are 62 species of orchid that have been recorded in the province. They give the current population status of each species, indicating whether it is secure or at risk, or introduced. Three species fall into this latter category, and an additional one is found only accidentally, with no known established populations. That leaves 58 that are found regularly in the province. Some 38 of those have secure populations, and the other 20 are either sensitive or at risk.

Yellow Ladyslipper

Yellow Lady’s-slipper, Cypripedium parviflorum, falls into the first category. It’s one of the most widespread of Ontario’s orchids, growing in a variety of habitats. There are four subspecies, which look similar but are largely divisible by habitat. This one was one of several found growing on the man-made spit of land that projects into Lake Ontario from the Toronto shoreline. The landform, or at least the bit where these plants were, is only about 30 years old. The spit has never, to my knowledge, undergone planting programs, and the orchids would have arrived under their own mysterious power.

Pink Ladyslipper

Another common species is this one, Pink Lady’s-slipper, Cypripedium acaule . They grow in acidic soil, commonly in the boreal forest but also in forests further south. It favours boggy areas but is happy to grow anywhere the soil conditions are met. Dan and I found quite a number in our Rock Ridge MAPS area at Frontenac Provincial Park at the end of May this year. They bloom through early July.

Showy Lady's-slipper, borrowed from my mom at Willow House Chronicles

When we first spotted the Pink Lady’s-slipper, I just assumed it was a Showy Lady’s-slipper, Cypripedium reginae, another relatively common species in Ontario. I didn’t give it much thought that it might be otherwise, and I didn’t bother to look it up later. I’ve never seen a Showy and it had been a while since I’d seen a photo; I expected it to be brighter, but wrote it off as the flower just being past its best.

Just north of here is Purdon Conservation Area, which includes Purdon Fen. This area contains some 16,000 individuals of Showy Lady’s-slipper, the largest known population of the species. My mom went up to see them this past spring and posted about it on her blog.

Looking at them side-by-side it’s hard to believe I mistook one for the other now. For one thing, the big cleft down the centre of the pouch on the Pink should be a big giveaway. The three lady’s-slippers shown above are the most common in Ontario, but there are an additional three that can be found in the province. The Bruce Peninsula, separating Georgian Bay from Lake Huron, is one of Ontario’s hotspots for orchids. Every year the Friends Of Bruce District Parks holds the Bruce Peninsula Orchid Festival in celebration of these beautiful flowers, where attendees can learn more and have the opportunity to see a wide variety of species. The Bruce is home to an amazing 44 species of wild orchid.

Rose Pogonia, aka Snakemouth Orchid

I’ve personally only seen a small handful of species. Perhaps I’ve seen more than I think I have, but not realized they’re orchids. Only a portion of orchids actually have the big, flashy flowers we tend to associate with the group. In fact, many more are more subdued, or smaller in size. This Rose Pogonia, Pogonia ophioglossoides, was found growing beside the water at Rock Ridge in the summer. I didn’t recognize it as an orchid at first, since its flowers and leaves were smaller than I typically think of. Now that I know what it is, I can see the similarities.


The Helleborine I mentioned yesterday are a non-native species, one of three in Ontario, and if their abundance on our property is any indication, they’re doing pretty well. They probably started out as garden plants, introduced more than a century ago. Having recently taken an interest in indoor orchids, I wondered if it would be possible to dig some of these up and cultivate them indoors. Since they’re non-native anyway, any possible negative consequences to the population would not be a problem (except, perhaps, in terms of my own aesthetic appreciation of them outdoors).

Pink Ladyslipper

That question led to wondering if it was possible to purchase native orchids for your garden. I know that, aside from damaging wild populations when collecting from the wild, most orchids don’t survive the transplant to a garden environment. Some, like the Pink Lady’s-slipper, have spreading root systems that may be more than two metres/yards in diameter, making it impossible to get the entire plant. Often the plant doesn’t survive the severe reduction in root mass. If you’re the patient sort, it may be possible to collect a seed pod and try growing your own from seed, but orchids are very long-lived plants, sometimes lasting on the order of decades, and as such it may take an orchid like the Pink Lady’s-slipper 10-16 years to grow from seed to blooming size.

"Clump of Cypripedium montanum - Lady Slipper Orchid" by pictoscribe on Flickr

Even just collecting the seeds has the potential to impact the wild population, as those seeds then don’t get a chance to germinate in the wild (regardless of whether or not they actually would have). Really, the best way to acquire orchids of your own is to purchase them from captive-bred populations raised at a reputable nursery. The Yellow Lady’s-slipper is not too hard to find, particularly at native plant nurseries, such as the Native Plant Source in Kitchener, Ontario.

However, some digging around online turned up a few links, including Fraser’s Thimble Farms on Salt Spring Island in British Columbia. This nursery specializes in rare and unusual flowers, many of them native. They have a whole page dedicated to cold-hardy ground orchids that will survive in Canada’s northern climate.

"Calypso or Fairy Slipper (Calypso bulbosa (L.) Oakes var. americana)" by pverdonk on Flickr

Another Canadian source is Planteck Biotechnologies in Quebec. They have a similar selection of species as Fraser’s Thimble Farms, not all of them native, but also list the genera Calypso and Calopogon. The above flower is Calypso bulbosa, a species native to Canada and our area; this particular individual was photographed on Manitoulin Island here in Ontario.

Lady's-slipper orchids in the gardens of Raising Rarities in Ohio; http://www.raisingrarities.com

The Washington Native Orchid Society provides a list of additional retailers, a dozen or so, mostly American. The photo above is from the website of Raising Rarities in Toledo, Ohio. They specialize mostly in lady’s-slippers, which are the most popular group at many of the nurseries, including both Fraser’s and Planteck above. Imagine this sight greeting you in the garden each dew-filled summer morning!

As an aside, I love that frosted fern in the foreground. My mom has a bunch of these growing in her new gardens, I must remember to ask for some in the spring.