Orchids are one of the oldest types of flowering plants on earth. And they are one of the most diverse with an estimated 20,000 to 30,000 separate genera and more species being identified all the time.
They are also one of the most interesting from the point of view that they have among the most fascinating life cycle – starting with pollination strategies. There are orchids that mimic wasps down to the production of pheromones of female wasps to attract the males who pollinate the flowers. Others mimic male wasps to incite male wasps to attack and fight with the flowers, thus pollinating it. There is one orchid whose flower looks like carrion and smells like rotting meat that attracts flies that pollinate it. Charles Darwin was fascinated with Angraecum sesquipedale and predicted that it was pollinated by a moth with a proboscis or tongue long enough to reach the end of the nectary. He was never able to see the moth and was ridiculed for the prediction, but it was discovered 50 years after his death and named Xanthopan morganii praedicta (the name praedicta means predicted).
After the flowers are pollinated, most orchids produce a seed pod which can contain up to three million seeds. The seeds are generally very small and in many cases almost dust-like. Unlike many other seeds, they contain only the growing kernel which will become a new plant. There is no excess capacity to provide the seed the nourishment it needs to grow, so it is imperative that the seeds, when it is dispersed, alight in a location where it can find a specific fungus which will provide nourishment for the seed until it develops into a plantlet and makes roots. Of the millions of seeds from a pod, only a few will succeed in finding the perfect location where they can grow in the wild. It can take from a few years to decades for plants to get large enough to bloom.
Fortunately for orchid lovers, artificial propagation of seeds has allowed for up to 100% germination and very good odds of having those tiny plants grown to flowering size. Seeds are placed in sterile flasks in an agar-like solution which provides the nutrition necessary for the seeds to germinate and grow. They are allowed to grow for a period of time in this sterile environment until they are large enough to be placed in a “community pot” or “compot” where usually 10-15 plantlets grow together. After they have reached the proper size they’re either placed in individual pots or into a compot with fewer plants. Finally they are all placed in individual pots to grow to flowering size.
In addition, a process called mericloning has allowed the commercial propagation of clones of awarded plants so that they can be sold to the public. Hybridization has also in many cases shortened the seed to flowering time so that many of today’s plants will bloom in three or four years, depending of course on the type of orchid.