Aug 8

Orchids are a dazzling genus of over 24,000 plant species capable of producing some of the most beautiful flowers on the planet. Found on every continent except Antarctica, orchids have been documented in nearly every color but black. However, the orchid is more than just a pretty face as it employs some of the cleverest tricks to attract pollinators and has developed unique relationships with other species, each benefitting nicely from it. Let’s explore some of the most fascinating (and lovely) orchids on ARKive!

Phantom plant

Ghost orchid photo

Although alive and well, the ghost orchid completely lacks chlorophyll, the green pigment found in most plants, giving it a pale, white appearance. Since it doesn’t depend on the sun for photosynthesis, it obtains all of its necessary nutrients from decaying organic matter.

Partners in coevolution

Photo of Darwin's orchid showing long nectar spurs

Found in Madagascar, Darwin’s orchid has the longest nectars of any orchid on record and when Darwin first encountered the species, he predicted it must have co-evolved with a gigantic moth with an enormous proboscis able to access the orchids nectar. With no moth of that description ever described, most scientists ignored Darwin’s theory until 1903 when it was discovered that a hawk moth had a proboscis just long enough to access the nectar.

Pollination pro

Cypripedium formosanum flower

One of the most cunning orchids, the slipper orchid employs a clever pollination tactic by first attracting potential pollinators such as bees and flies with its irresistible fragrance. Unable to completely access the flower due to a protective shield, frustrated pollinators often fall into the pouch below and the only escape route is to ascend a ladder of hairs, through the column and out the base of the flower, bringing the insects into contact with the pollen in the process. Not the most clever of pollinators, the bees and flies often fall for the same trick soon again and transfer pollen from one flower to another.

Radiantly reptilian

Lizard orchid photo

A perfect example of a specialized and highly evolved orchid, the lizard orchid, with its long twisting tail, two ‘legs’, and the petals and sepals forming the ‘head’ looks, well, like a lizard! It’s also one of the longest-lived orchids and has been known to survive for over 20 years.

Age-old acquaintances

Cymbidium rectum photo

This orchid, Cymbidium rectum, may lack a common name but has no shortage of friends. Having developed a symbiotic relationship with biting ants over the centuries, this orchid receives round-the-clock protection from plant-eating insects in return for sharing its nectar with its ant bodyguards.

Buried blossom

Photo of an underground orchid

Arguably one of the most unique orchids in existence, the underground orchid is just like its namesakes states, an orchid that lives completely underground. Wherever an underground orchid is found, the root system of a broom honey myrtle, a type of small evergreen shrub, is nearby and the underground orchid obtains nutrients from these plants by way of a mycorrhizal fungus.

These are just a small sampling of the many orchids in the ARKive collection. If you’d like to learn more, check out the interesting looking early spider orchid, the aptly named Dracula vampira orchid or the just plain beautiful fairy slipper orchid. Do you have a favorite we haven’t mentioned? Let us know!

Liana Vitali, ARKive Science, Education and Outreach Officer, Wildscreen USA

  • Anthony Davis (August 10th, 2011 at 2:39 pm):

    I think that orchids are the most beautiful flowers in the world! I was born in Barbados and was overseas from 1962 – 1990. Here we have a tourist attraction called Orchid World with some of the most beautiful orchids from all over the world – including the Black Spider.

    I’ve been told that the really black orchids grow in cold climates on the mountainside.

    I will browse your orchid archives and see if I can download any.