How can fungus help an orchid grow

Orchids - mysterious and beautiful

The queen of flowers has lost much of its specialty. Orchids are certainly still beautiful plants, but today you can get them in practically every flower shop or hardware store. To bring the peculiarity of these plants back into focus a bit, here are some interesting facts.

Orchids are a family of plants that are found all over the world. They grow on every continent (except Antarctica) and due to their biodiversity in practically every eco-zone (except in deserts). The majority, however, grow in the tropics and subtropics. There are still only estimates that vary widely about the number of species in orchids. They range from 15,000 to 35,000 species worldwide. There are currently around 1000 different genres. Between 1990 and 2000 alone, 200 to 500 new species were described each year.

These plants have fascinated people for more than 2500 years. In China, they were used as a remedy, for decoration and as an aphrodisiac. They also played a big role in superstition. Even the Aztecs revered certain types of orchids as sacred flowers and therefore cultivated them in their sanctuaries.

Orchids produce numerous very small seeds that cannot germinate without the help of fungi that form a symbiosis with the seeds. Because of their size, the seeds lack nutrient tissue and so they can only germinate if they are infected by a fungus. The orchid embryos then get their nutrients from the mushroom by digesting either parts of the mushroom's body or its excretions.

These plants are very persistent. In theory, depending on the species and habit, they can continue to grow indefinitely. However, although orchids have fascinated humans for millennia, very little is known about the ages orchids can reach.

Orchids can grow in three different ways. Either they grow on other plants (not as parasites), on the ground or on stones. The roots have adapted to the particular circumstances. They not only serve as an organ of absorption of water and nutrients, but also as an organ of attachment and holding. The root shape of the orchids growing on other plants is, in contrast to the other species, not cylindrical but flattened.

No other family of plants has a wider range of flower shapes and colors. The size can range from a few millimeters to more than 20 centimeters. There are flowers in almost all colors, from white to blue and green to red and yellow tones. Many orchids are also multicolored. Depending on the species, a plant can have more than a hundred flowers. The leaf color ranges from green to red and brown to white.

Pollination is mostly done by insects. But birds, bats and even frogs also play a role. Some species also reproduce by self-pollination. It is noticeable that many non-tropical orchids do not offer any reward for the pollinators. So they don't get any nourishment. If “rewards” are offered, they only consist of wax or fragrances.

Orchids are of great economic importance. However, only a few species are cultivated as useful plants. The spice vanilla deserves a special mention. Some other types are used to flavor teas and as a perfuming agent for tobacco and perfumes. As ornamental plants or cut flowers, they play an important role, especially in Thailand and the Netherlands. The export of orchids brings Thailand around 40 million euros annually. In the Netherlands they are bred for the mass market. The cultivation area was already well over 200 hectares in 2003.

Although there is little data available, it can be assumed that many orchid species are endangered in nature. The main reasons for this are the ongoing deforestation of the rainforests and the agricultural use of areas where orchids are found. Uncontrolled foraging, especially when new species are discovered, also endangers many species.

There is also a noticeable decline in Europe. This is mainly due to the changed rural management. There used to be a lot more pastures. These are increasingly disappearing, but are the best place for many European species. These species cannot thrive in forests.

Our next article is about proper orchid care.