Guest Author - Susan Taylor
Most of us think of orchids as coming from tropical areas and many of them do. But orchids can be found from the fringes of the Arctic Circle to the north to the southern tips of South America and Australia. The only continent without orchids is Antarctica. They vary in size from several tons to those that are so small that the whole plant will fit in a thimble. In variety, the orchid family is the largest in the world with somewhere between 20,000 to 30,000 different species. They are thought to be among the oldest of the flowering plants.
The majority of orchids which growers are familiar with are the epiphytes from tropical regions. Examples are the Cattleyas, Dendrobiums, Vandas, and Phalaenopsis orchids. They are showy and widely distributed as flowering plants to the orchid growing public. Most of these epiphytes come from tropical rain forests and temperate forests in South America, Africa, Asia, and numerous tropical islands. Epiphytes grow on trees, using them merely for support. It was thought for years that such orchids were parasites but studies have found that they take no nourishment from the trees they inhabit. They simply grow on the branches and trunks using them as a growing support.
Less well known are the smaller varieties of epiphytes and lithophytes of the Andes and Himalayas. Lithophytes are orchids which grow in cracks and crevices in rocks or among stones on the ground. Some of the better known examples are the Masdevallias and Pleurothallids.
Then there are the widespread terrestrial orchids which grow mostly in leaf litter under trees or in fairly dry soils. The terrestrials are the orchids which occupy most of the world and grow in temperature and subarctic areas of the world. The best known of these are the Cypripediums or Lady Slipper orchids, although there are many other terrestrial orchids. Lady slippers are pouched orchids very similar and related to Paphiopedilums. They and many other orchids prosper in boggy areas and peat bogs throughout the world. Terrestrial orchids are intimately tied to the ecosystems they inhabit, depending upon the fungi in the ground they inhabit for their very survival. Virtually all terrestrials that are dug up from the wild will die. Unfortunately, collectors still try digging them up and we are losing a vital resource as a result. A better alternative is to purchase terrestrials which have been grown from seed which can be grown much more easily under controlled conditions.