The Fascinating World of Orchids

Features Issue 39 Aug, 2010
/ Photo: Naresh Shrestha and Arthur Pazo

In far-western Nepal, specifically in the district of Dolpa, is found a species of orchid locally known as 'Panch Aunlle' (literally meaning 'five fingered'). This orchid plant is highly prized for its medicinal property of imparting great vigour. Until recently, 'Panch Aunlle' (Dactylorhinza hatagirea), was being smuggled out of the country, but the government is now making serious efforts to stop this from happening.

Flickingrea macrei and Pholidota articulata, both called 'Jivanti' (loosely translated means, 'giving life') are also orchids that have values. They are used in popular tonic preparations like 'chawanprash'. Besides these, according to Rose Shrestha, M.Sc (Botany), there are almost 385 species of orchids in Nepal.

She should know. Since 1990, she has been the Botanist in charge of orchids and ornamental plants at the

Royal Botanical Garden in Godavari, Lalitpur. Shrestha has also participated in and exhibited Nepalese orchids at the 5th Asia Pacific Orchid Conference and Exhibition in 1995.

About 90 species, including the popular 'Sungava' (Dendrobium densifloram) and 'Chandigava' (Coelogyne cristata) can be seen in the Royal Botanical Garden's Orchid House. The Nepali name for orchids as a whole is 'Sunakhari'.

Rose is of the view that although orchids need more care than most other plants, growing them is not such a difficult matter if one knows the basic rules. Orchids need to have constant humidity and they need to be watered regularly. According to her, the soil compost should not only be nutritious, it must not be waterlogged, nor dry. Therefore Shrestha suggests that orchids should be grown in wooden basket like structures in which there is ample space for water to flow. At the same time one must make sure that the compost does not become dry. She advises orchid growers to add pieces of tree barks, humus, etc… to the soil compost that will soak and retain water. She also advises the use of commercially available sprays like 'Orchidcare' for foliar treatment to provide extra nutrition.

The hybrid varieties available in most nurseries in Kathmandu (imported from Sikkim, Kalimpong, etc…) have definite advantages over the pure breeds. They are sturdier, and the flowers are larger and last for longer periods. No wonder some hybrids can cost from NRs.8,000 to NRs. 9,000 as compared to only NRs. 100 for a non-hybrid like Cymbidium calanthe.

Rose Shrestha suggests March-April and July-August as the best months to visit Godavari if one wants to see many orchid flowers in bloom. And orchids in bloom are surely a sight for sore eyes. Orchids are to flowers, what diamonds are to gems.

The Greek philosopher, Theoph-rastus, is credited with giving the name for orchids which is derived from 'orchis' (meaning testicles), so given because some species (especially of the genus orchis), have a pair of tubers that resemble testicles. According to the experts, there are around 600 genera and about 25,000 species of orchids worldwide. Four fifths of the total species is located in the tropics and sub tropics, while the rest are in temperate and sub arctic regions.

Within the scientific system of flowering plants, Orchidaceae family belongs to the division of Monocotyledons (having single seed leaf). The outer whorl of an orchid usually has three equal sepals that are coloured and rarely green. Then there are three petals, two of which are equal and lateral, while the third is different in shape and size. This is called the lip, or the labellum. The lip occurs in all orchids and is one of the remarkable characteristics of the orchid family. It can be variously colored and shaped. In Papliopedilum it is slipper shaped, in others it is lobed, or trumpet shaped; divided or with various appendages, even spurred. Spurs usually contain nectar to attract insects and birds that are the principal means of pollination.

The sexual apparatus differs strikingly from other Monocotyledons. In the majority of orchids, only one of the six stamens of the androecium is developed and fertile. Some orchids have two fertile stamens, and on this fact the further division of orchids is based. The sub division Cypripidioidea has two stamens that are suppressed, one is transformed into a sterile 'staminode' and only two stamens of the inner whorl are fertile. In the sub division Orchidoideae all stamens of the inner whorl are suppressed and only one of the outer whorl is fertile.

Generally, there are three types of orchids: saprophytes, terrestrials and epiphytes. Saprophytes are pale, chlorophyll-less, grow on the humus layer on forest floors and depend on the presence of adjoining fungus for nourishment. They are almost impossible to cultivate and have little ornamental value. Terrestrials have chlorophyll and grow in soil like other plants. The epiphytes grow on trees, decaying tree trunks or mossy rocks. They are not parasites but derive nourishment from the humus they grow in such as rotting leaves and organic matter supplied by other epiphytic plants, as well as from the atmosphere.

Orchids have different types of shoot: rhizone, tuber, stem or pseudo bulb. They also have different kinds of leaves: Anoectochilus regalis (locally called 'Wanah Rajah' or 'Forest King') of Sri Lanka, has ovate elliptic leaves two and a half inch long, one and a half inch wide.  The leaves have a velvety surface, are shining bronze green in color and the venation is a glittering golden tracery. Macodes petola (found in Sumatra, Java and Borneo) has emerald green leaves that while reflecting light, has a crystal-like effect on the surface which glitters and sparkles. In addition, the golden network of veins contrasts with the shiny green background. In general, Anoectochilus, Goodyera, Ludisia and Macodes genera have the most colorful and glittering leaves.

However, flowers alone make orchids interesting and lend them their beauty, uniqueness and value.  Color of the flowers is undoubtedly the orchids' greatest charm. Unlike most other plants, in orchids, there is no color missing from the range.  Blue, rarest color among flowers, is present in attractive shades, such as is found in Vanda coerulea and Disa graminifolia. However, it is not the basic color and is more often found as the color of a part of the flower or its markings. The labella of Cattleya has a luxurious deep velvet color.

Red is present in countless shades. Renanthera imschootiana (of Assam) and Cochlioda noezliana (of Peru) and Disa uniflora of South Africa have the most scarlet red of flowers. Lilac shades are frequent in species such as Cattleya, Laelia, Phalaenopsis, Dendrobium, Paphiopedilum etc… and range from almost white to delicate pastels. This group is important in the cut flower industry. Lilac shades keep their 'glow' even under artificial light and often look better in evening light. Cinnabar and orange orchids are prized because of their yellow tones.

Yellow is the most common color in orchids and can range from sunny yellow to brown to rust to practically red. Green is also a fairly common color in orchid flowers. The flower of the Cynoches ventricosum from Guatemala is a light green shade with the white lip providing contrast. Green color is common in Cymbidium, Paphiopedilum, etc… and is often found as spots, patches or stripes on white parts of a flower.

Pure white color is specially prized in orchid flowers. The Asian Phalaenopsis, Odontoglossum crispum from Colombia, Angraecum from Africa and Madagascar, as well as white Catteleyas owe their special value to their white coloured flowers. Many Coelogynes (of Asia) also have white colored flowers. White Paphiopedilum species are the rarest and costliest in the whole family, but pure white ones are not found in nature, being always slightly marked with other colors. But crossing has led to pure white hybrids having no colored markings of any kind.

Usually there are far more orchids with two or more colors than with only one. Most flowers are striped or spotted or may have some other markings. Regarding their consistency, there is some variation. South and Central American Stanhopea flowers are succulent but wither after a few days. Delicate looking Phalaenopsis flowers can last for months. It has been reported that Phalaenopsis anabilis infloresences with more than a hundred flowers have lasted for four months. The Dendrobium stratiotes is recorded as having flowers that remained fresh for nine months. Flower of the Vanda species can keep the same appearance for three months and Odontoglossum grande flower for one month. In contrast, the large shimmering species like the Sobralias, flower and fade within a day. According to Rose Shrestha of Godavari Gardens, as far as local orchids are concerned, the flowers last for one to two weeks on average.

As for scent, there are as many without scent as there are with scent. Orchids do not have typical scents as found in roses, lilies or violets. The scent can be delicate and misty, sweet and seductive or heavy and intoxicating. Cattleya dowiana and Cattleya labiata have especially attractive scents. Oncidium ornithorrhynchum of Mexico and Guatemala has a powerful scent. The flowers of Bulbophyllum species have obnoxious scents. As a rule, orchids with large flowers have less scent, while the ones with smaller flowers have stronger scent. Most flowers exude scent during the sunny hours.

While there have been records of a large number of flower production among orchids, the average production is three flowers per plant. Orchids with large flowers such as Paphiopedilum usually have one flower per plant.

Regarding size, again there is great variation. Bulbophyllum minutissimum of North Australia and Borneo, as well as Taeniophyllum tjiboolsanum of Africa, are among the smallest of orchids, bulbs of the former measuring only one fifth of an inch in diameter. The largest and heaviest of the orchids is the epiphyte, Grammatophyllum speci-osum, which has a diameter of about 10 to 13 feet and is almost 10 feet tall. The Galeola altissima of Sumatra (a saprophyte) is the tallest, with its climbing stems reaching 130 feet in length.

Orchids are a fascinating group of plants with extraordinary variety. Among the Himalayan genera, the most common are Dendrobium, Coelogyne, Calanthe, Cymbidium, etc… Hybrids of Dendrobium have the most commercial value and many such hybrids, imported from Sikkim and Kalimpong, are available in nurseries here.

Amar Ghale of New Manakamana Nursery (Bishalnagar) brings hybrid orchids from Ilam at about NRs.500 per plant and sells them for NRs.600 to NRs.800. However, he admits that it would be difficult to predict quality until they flower, which could take some time. He nourishes his orchids with a solution of bone meal, 'pina', potash and manure once every three months. He further advises growing moss on the soil surface to retain humidity and to keep the plants in partial shade.

Based on his experience, Ghale informs that until at least five pseudo bulbs have developed, orchids do not flower. He further states that customers buy orchids from his nursery when in bloom, but due to negligence/lack of knowledge in their upkeep, the orchids rarely flourish. As a result, these customers have numerous complaints.

Amar Ghale is disappointed that Nepal has not been able to benefit from the huge demand for orchids abroad, as Sikkim and Kalimpong have done. He moans that 'too much bureaucracy and corruption' discourages those wanting to develop this lucrative export business. He is of the opinion that Nepal has a large number of orchids all over the country, including the tarai. He is amazed that during the annual orchid shows in Mirik (around September-October), orchid lovers even exchange their cars for some rare specimens! At least that's what he claims to have heard.

In conclusion, one cannot end this essay on the fascinating world of orchids without mentioning that the well-known vanilla essence is derived from an orchid, the Vanilla planifolia (a climbing epiphyte), the capsules of which provide the famous flavoring agent.