There are some features common to all species which make a plant to be included in the "orchidaceae family".
For example, the orchid flower has the feminine and masculine organ of reproduction fusing in only one body called column or gynostemium.
Another characteristic, the irregular form of the flower segment: It has 3 sepals and 3 petals. The medium petal is modified and is called labellum or lip. It is, in general intensively colored and is the most interesting part of the flower from where the scent is exhaled in order to attract the agent of pollination.
Its form or scent can vary a lot: it can have the appearance of female bee (like Ophyrs), female wasp like Drakea or Cryptostylis, a bucket like Coryanthes, having a very sweet or disagreeable, strong or light perfume. Every thing is done in order to attract the pollinator to guarantee the reproduction of the species.
Orchids are not parasites, as people believe, they aren't fed by the host, they only use it to fix themselves well. In general, they are epiphytic, living on the trees or on the rocks (in tropical zones) or terrestrial (temperate zones).
Extremely diversified plants, orchids are found all around the world except in the deserts so it is always possible to find one species which can thrive in the conditions you can provide.
Although they can be found at the sea-level to 4.000m high, they are more numerous between 500 and 2.000m above the sea.
Some orchid species are among the world's smallest flowering plant like Eurystyles or many Pleurothallidinae plants. Some others can reach 4m height like Selenipedium (growing in Tropical America) or Grammatophyllum papuanum (Papua-New Guinea).
The number of genera is calculated at about 600, the number of species between 25.000 and 30.000 and the hybrids more than 100.000 already registered.
Bulbophyllum is the most rich genus in number of species, it is supposed to have 2.000, then there is Pleurothallis (over 1.500 have been attributed to this genus with many species to be still described), followed by Dendrobium with 1.400 and finally, Epidendrum with more than 800. Nowadays, many species of Bulbophyllum are described as Cirrhopetalum and Epidendrum as Encyclia or Anacheilium.
The geographical distribution is not regular around the world. There is a few genera which are represented in almost every continent but, in general, they have a restrict distribution:
Nowadays, the most part of the species are spread around the world since they are so well adapted that they thrive every where as they were a native genus.
Angreacum, Cymbidium, Dendrobium, Paphiopedilum, Phaius, Phalaenopsis, Renanthera, Vanda and their relatives, Cattleya and Oncidium and their relatives can be cultivated in every continent, just depending on the weather or greenhouses conditions where they are cultivated.
Beverage, love potions, philters, aphrodisiac and medicinal preparation.
We don't know since when the orchids has been used for producing beverage but since the first century after Christ, it has been mentioned in the literature.
Diescorides (Greek Physician, already mentioned), at the first century after Christ, developed the theory that tuberous roots of the orchids should be efficient for stimulating sexual activity as they resemble to testicles. This principle was known as "Signal's doctrine. God should have created the plants to be useful for human beings and they would have a signal to indicate its use. So diseases must be treated by parts of plants which have some resemblance with the organ to be treated. This belief remained for many centuries meanwhile during the medieval aged. It was assumed that orchids had strong power not only to encourage sexual activities, to increase the virility or to cure all sexual diseases but also they had the capacity to fertilize and provoke the birth of male children.
Used as a aphrodisiac, the roots should be crushed and then swallowed. They were sold in grocer and druggist shop to prepare many beverages. This usage remained until the 17th.
In England, John Partridge, Charles I's physician, suggested a love portion from "Orchis macula" would have strong force to provide sexual desire and excite both sexes.
In 1640, Parkinson, the same king's druggist and gardener, wrote, in his "Theatrum botanicum", that the orchids provoked lasciviousness.
It was also said that the witches used orchids roots to prepare philters or love potions which were also known as "Love charm".
The parts of orchids were also used to cure a disease known as "King's evil", supposedly curable by a king's touch.
In 1849/1554, Jerome Bock's manuscript intensified once more the belief in their capacity of being a sexual stimulant. His work was based on the assumption that if orchids were plants without seed, they should grow from the seminal fluid poured out by the animals during their coupling.
In 1665, Atanasio Kircher, a Germany Jesuit, in his "Subterranean World", called them "satyria" arguing that they grow from the ground where animals engender, evoking Jerome Bock.
Until now, some species are still used as medicine (potion or beverage) in many regions of the world to treat arthritis, diarrhea, headache, temperature, cough, digestion diseases and to help to heal wound and incision.
A substance extracted from the orchid, in the likeness of starch, given support during famine and during many centuries has been produced in Turkey and Iraq. It was obtained from the tubers of "Orchis" and "Ophrys".
Long time before the introduction of the coffee in Europe, this substance was sold to prepare a hot drink to be swallowed during the winter. It was known by Greeks since the 3rd century before Christ and have been spread in Asia (India and China) and Europe. Just now it is drank in some regions of Turkey. Until the beginning of this century, it was still sold on Istambul's streets, under the name of shalep, salep or saloop.
Some Indians from the North America also used orchid to produce food.
The pollinated flowers of Vanilla planifolia, Mexican species, after becoming beans are dried and cured to produce the vanillin which is the active principle of the vanilla, used to flavored chocolates, candies, pies, and so on...
Vanilla is a very primitive genus and, according to the scientists, its origin dated from 120.000.000 years.
The Aztecs used it before the American discovery, in 1492.
There are some other Vanilla species which also produces vanillin but the quality is inferior to this produced by the Vanilla planifolia.
In Occident literature, it has been mentioned for the first time in 1522, in the most old study about South America's flowers. It was introduced in Europe, as bean, around about 1510.
The oil extracts from orchid's flower is employed in cosmetic industry for preparing products to hydrate the skin.
In Philippines and New Guinea, the stem of some Dendrobium species is used to tissue and to make baskets and bracelets. The stems are put to dry out until becoming bright yellow, then are cut in very thinner ribbons and used to make beautiful pieces.
In some tribes, Cattleya labiata var. autumnalis'sap is employed to glue for musical instruments.
In Central America, the Schomburgkias'empty pseudobulbs are used to make horn.
Some orchids become associated to ants giving them shelter in exchanging of protection from predators and two tropical genus, Caularthron and Myrmecophila have an opening at the pseudobulbs base to make easy ants' entrance because they fix their home inside those pseudobulbs.
There are two Australian species which are subterranean. One of them, Rhizanthella gardneri, thrives and bloom underground.
It's told that there are saprophyte orchids although the most part of botanists only accept two kinds of classification: epiphytes and terrestrial orchids.
Since long time ago, orchids have been inspiring many paintings. It's a subject that always attracted Japanese and Chinese painters.
Many Cymbidium species have been painted at the XIX century by Gyokem Bompon, in Japan and until now the paintings can be admired in the volume XI by "Gesnhoku Nihon no Bijutsu", in Rokuo-in temple, in Kioto.
The Chinese painters of Yuan Dinasty's (1279-1368) were rather recognizes by their paintings concerning plants included the orchids.
In China as well as in Japan, the painter of this period was very interested in all plants meanwhile in orchids like Cymbidium, Vanda and Dendrobium genera. The most interesting paintings are putting together in the "Manual of Painting of Mustard Seeds Garden", by Wang-Na-Chien and his three brothers.
A stone jar dated from Yi Korean Dynasty (1650) is decorated with orchids. Those paintings show touches surprisingly abstract.
Since the 18th century, when the orchid mania spread over the Europe, many painters became interested in painting those flowers and since then a lot of books, bulletins and pictorial have been published.
In 1854, Jean-Jules Linden had his "Pescatorea" (Orchids iconographie) with 48 illustrations of tropical orchids published.
Between 1885 and 1905, Linden's family published in mensal pictorial, a truly monument of the world orchids literature: Lindenia.
J. Barbosa Rodrigues (Brazilian botanist and Director of the Botanical Garden of Rio de Janeiro), painted more than 1.000 water color about Brazilian orchids. It remained unpublished for a century.
In 1882/1884, Martin Johson Heade painted a study about hummingbird and two orchids.
1882, Aubert du Petit-Thours, between many others he did, had his Angreacum sesquipedale illustration published in Darwin's work.
In 1936-1937, in Brazil, Guignard painted an oil on canvas "Without Titlle", a jar plenty of orchids. In 1938, he painted "Landscape", another oil on canvas where orchids are put in relief as they were the frame.
Georgia O'Keefe, American painter, has also produced a beautiful serie of orchids.
Margareth Mee, English biologist, spent most part of her life in searching and drawing Brazilian orchids among other plants she also drawn.
Nowadays, in Brazil, there are some new painters and botanist illustrators like Sylvia Amélia, Dulce Nascimento, Cristina Miranda, Paulo Ormindo, Álvaro Pessanha, Maria Werneck de Castro and many others as you can see at our Art Gallery.