115. Orchids Overview

You are surrounded here by an astonishing variety of colors, shapes, fragrances, and sizes of orchids.

This is only a fraction of the nearly 30,000 species in the orchid family. Orchids grow on every continent except Antarctica, and they can live in almost every environment.

All orchid flowers have a column at the center that contains the fused male and female parts. Most have a distinctive lower petal, or lip, that helps attract pollinators.

Orchids have evolved a diversity of methods to attract their insect pollinators by using patterns, colors, scents, and more. For example, the blooms of some species resemble a swarm of bees. Feeling threatened, real bees attack the flowers and, in the process, pollinate them.

Other species have flowers that smell like decaying meat. This tricks flies and beetles that normally lay eggs on dead animals into laying their eggs on the orchid flowers-- transferring pollen between flowers. Some orchids have sweet smells that attract male bees gathering scents for their own perfume to entice a mate.

Orchid enthusiasts—who have been cross-pollinating flowers by hand since the 1850s—have created more than 110,000 orchid hybrids. The U.S. Botanic Garden has almost 4,000 orchid plants representing more than 900 species.