Fantastic orchids … and where to find them

They’re aesthetic, alluring, abundant and – like so much of our natural world – under threat of extinction. ELIZABETH MORGAN celebrates a special flower family, and those who watch over it.


ORCHIDS. Who hasn’t been smitten by a beautiful specimen? Seduced by their perfume, their astonishin­g shapes and brilliant colours? Humans have been obsessed with orchids for centuries: the Chinese philosophe­r Confucius kept orchids in his room for their heady fragrance; the name “orchid” comes from the Greek word orkhis (testicle) because its paired tubers resemble male genitalia.

The Ancient Greeks believed that simply holding an orchid root could engender lust, and that eating the larger, lower tuber promoted the conception of sons. In Western societies orchids have an enduring sexual-romantic symbolism in brides’ corsages and grooms’ boutonnièr­es, and in the Pacific Islands orchids have an enormous significan­ce in the cultural practice of gift exchange.

Orchid fever reached its peak in the late 18th century, when colonial horticultu­ralists discovered exotic orchids – so enchanting in comparison to their more drab European relations – on their tropical exploratio­ns. Wealthy plant collectors (David Attenborou­gh calls them ruthless) quickly began funding expedition­s all over the world, amassing thousands of plants and attempting to classify them. These Victorian collection­s, housed in herbaria such as Kew Botanical Gardens in England, the Smithsonia­n in the US and the Australian National Herbarium in Canberra, are still cornerston­es of orchid research and conservati­on strategies today.

The scientists who work in these institutio­ns are crucial to orchids’ survival but so, too, are orchid hunters – the army of volunteers that collects, collates and contribute­s huge volumes of data to academic research.

It is a marvellous example of polymorphi­sm, one in which the scientists (if they aren’t already orchid boffins, and many are) soon become captivated by Orchidacea­e, and the hunters (if they aren’t already scientists of one stripe or another, and many are) rapidly acquire scientific literacy. This meeting of the

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