Orchids are fascinating and diverse flowers. They are probably one of the most diverse and largest plant families in existence on our planet today. The size of an orchid plant can range from microscopic to being several feet tall. The bloom of an orchid can range from very tiny to blooming larger than a human hand. The flower petals are arranged in an elaborate composition, and the blooms can come in a great variety of colors. Orchids grow in just about any climate and in any type of physical geography, such as tree branches, rocks, or even the ground. However, the majority of orchids grow in warm climates. In the United States, most orchids are found in Hawaii and Florida. The most internationally traded orchids come from the tropical nations of Asia and South America, also India, Thailand, China, Singapore, Madagascar, Brazil, and Guatemala. One of the most interesting facts about orchids is that they can vary dramatically in the amount of time needed to bloom. Some orchids can take up to 10 years to bloom, while others, like the hybrids from the Dendrobium genus, usually bloom within one year.
While the variety and types of orchids may seem almost endless, there are certain similarities between plants. Most orchids have fruit. This may be surprising to many who only think about orchids as just a flowering plant that provides decoration. Most types of orchids have fruit that is a result of their unique pollination structures. The “fruit” of the orchid is usually not edible. This fruit is the early result of successful pollination. Yet there is one very notable exception to this. The fruit of one particular orchid provides the highly prized vanilla pods.
Vanilla is the genus for about 110 species in the orchid family including the species Vanilla planifolia. This is the orchid from which commercial vanilla flavoring is derived. This evergreen orchid genus occurs worldwide in tropical and subtropical regions, from tropical America to tropical Asia, New Guinea and West Africa.
These types of orchids have an interesting blooming history. The flowers can be quite large and attractive with white, green, greenish yellow or cream colors. Their sepals and petals are usually similar. Each flower opens up in the morning and closes late in the afternoon, and never reopens. If pollination has not occurred while it was open it will be shed. It is here that the highly sought after vanilla pods form. The “fruit” of this orchid is the vanilla bean which is an elongated, fleshy seed pod. It ripens gradually about 8 to 9 months after flowering, eventually it turns black in color and gives off a strong aroma. Each pod contains thousands of minute seeds, but it is the pod itself that is used to create vanilla flavoring. It is important to note that the Vanilla planifolia is the only orchid used for industrial purposes especially in the food industry and in the cosmetic industry.
The seeds of the orchid are equally fascinating. It can take from six months to one year for a seed capsule to mature. It is not uncommon for a seed capsule to contain up to 10,000-100,000 seeds. Some seed capsules have been recorded to contain as many as 3,000,000 seeds. Orchid seeds can best be described as very transparent and very small, tiny specks, that at times are barely visible to the human eye. Only seeds having the possibility for growth are said to be viable. A viable seed must contain an embryo, but the presence of an embryo in a seed is not a guarantee that it is viable. Seeds are checked for embryo presence, or absence, by placing them under a microscope. Orchid seeds also have only very small reserves of nutrients and need a fungus for germination in nature; this is known as “symbiotic” germination. The required nutrients for growth are provided by the fungus. The growth of orchid seedlings is rapid. Up until 1922, growing orchids from seeds was the only known method of propagating orchids. Today technology has made that vastly different.