The family Orchidaceae is the largest single family of flowering plants in the plant kingdom. There is thought to be around 25,000 to 30,000 different species of orchids. They inhabit most of the land mass on the earth, from the tropics to the temperate climates. The majority are found in the tropics. Most orchids in the tropics are epiphytes (grow on trees); orchids in temperate zones are mostly terrestrial (grow in soil). A few are lithophytic (grow on rocks).
Orchids have evolved over many millions of years. Some orchids mimic specific insects, this facilitates pollination of the flowers. The Bee Orchid is a good example. Orchid flowers range from a millimetre to 150 millimetres or more across. Some orchids only have one flower and others have many. The scent of some can be overpowering and pleasant, and some have a smell that is overpowering and unpleasant. Some flowers can last for a long time, being useful for the cut flower industry, others last a day or so.
Collecting wild orchids became popular in the early part of the nineteenth century. They were collected indiscriminately by the plant collectors sent out by the large estates and orchid nurseries of that time. Thankfully, that does not happen now. The botanists nowadays mainly collect seed and take photographs for a better record of the plants they find in the wild. Most of the orchid species you see in orchid nurseries today are raised from seed or by tissue culture. Orchids species can still be imported but they must be grown in nurseries in the country of origin.
It was in 1853 that the first orchid cross was made. It was made by John Dominy, an orchid grower working for the Veitch nursery. It was a cross between Calanthe furcata and Calanthe masuca. It flowered in 1856 and was named Calanthe Dominyi in honour of the grower. Today hybrids form a large part of an amateur grower’s collection. With today’s modern hybrids, particularly those exported by the Dutch nursery industry, can be used as pot plants in the house. The best orchids to have in the house as pot plants are Phalaenopsis, Paphiopedilum and Cymbidium hybrids.
There is no need to go out into the countryside and dig up orchids or wild flowers, indeed this is illegal. Many British Orchids can be purchased from nurseries specialising in hardy orchids and other hardy plants. The best time to buy hardy orchids is when they are in the dormant stage.
Derek Jones, East Midlands Orchid Society