Orchis is among the earliest as well as most familiar orchids having their origin in the Mediterranean region. The name of this orchid - Orchis, refers to the Greek term for testicles as this orchid has two identical oval tubers. Occasionally, Orchis as well as other orchids have been believed to be valuable in medication. However, Vanilla planifolia is the sole orchid having genuine economic value, as it forms a resource of vanilla flavouring. The Aztecs used this orchid and, hence, soon after the Spanish conquered Mexico, it became a familiar orchid in Europe.
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Towards the beginning of the 18th century, many people brought epiphytic orchids from China and the West Indies to Great Britain and by the end of the 1700s, as many as 15 such orchid species were growing at the Kew-based Royal Botanic Garden in Great Britain. However, the success was not notable because these orchids were grown in hot, humid greenhouses where there was very little or no ventilation or air circulation.
With the improvement in growing techniques, growing orchids turned out to be a fashion among the affluent and titled just before the mid-19th century. Collectors explored the tropical regions with the aim of finding new or select orchids and sent them back home in large numbers. In fact, these collectors were so persistent in their mission that desirable orchids virtually became rare or extinct in several areas in the tropics. On the other hand, large number of orchids died while they were being transported and some more perished due to inept handling by novice buyers. Prized orchid specimens were sold for exuberant amounts, which led to the common belief that orchids were basically meant for the rich and affluent.
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While the above-mentioned issues led to the destruction of numerous orchids, including prized specimens, destruction of the orchids' habitat posed even greater threat. People across the world cleared forests and felled trees either for the timber or for developing agricultural lands or pastures and this adversely affected the population of orchids worldwide. Sometimes people deliberately set fire to forests and woodlands to clear the areas, which eventually led to conditions prevailing in semi-deserts. For instance, it is possible that such activities have led to the obliteration of several orchid species in Indonesia. However, luckily one relatively recent development has been beneficial for economies that are rich in orchids, but cash-poor as well as helped to preserve the orchids native to those regions. In several countries, people are now growing native orchids in nurseries with a view to export them, market them locally and also to restore the natural habitats of orchids.
Aside from this, the availability of orchids has increased owing to cross breeding of native species. Hybridization of orchid species was first undertaken in the mid-19th century, when horticulturists discovered that they could successfully cross orchid species that seldom formed hybrids while growing in the wild. As a result, several hybridized orchids were developed by crossing different genera. As of now, the list of hybrid orchids includes more than 100,000 species and their number keeps growing steadily every year.
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Available documents show that interest in hybridizing orchids may have aroused for the first time towards the beginning of the 19th century. Perhaps, several things led to the interest in orchid culture. However, much of the credit for developing orchid hybrids goes to the British horticulturist Mr. William Cattley, who cultivated a number of new orchids, in addition to some tropical plants which he received from South America. One of the plants grown by Cattley bloomed in 1818 and this virtually created a sensation. This plant was shown to John Lindley, who is even today considered to be among the most reputed orchid taxonomists ever, and the famous botanist named the orchid Cattleya labiata to honour Cattley as well as to appreciate the stunning lip of the orchid's flower. However, apparently Swainson, the person who actually collected the plant grown by Cattley in Brazil, disappeared mysteriously even before he could tell the world where he precisely found the orchid.
During Cattley's time, it was the in-thing for the affluent, especially those with landed property, to construct big greenhouses on their holdings. These greenhouses maintained tropical temperatures with the help of steam pipes from boilers heated with coal. It was the duty of a servant to get up every night from his bed to continue stoking the fire. Such greenhouses were known as stove-houses and they had several flourishing tropical plants. Some owners planted a number of orchids in these conditions and they presumable survived. However, most of them became weakened and died sooner or later. Gradually, the plant collectors started providing more information and details as to the manner in which as well as the conditions wherein the orchids thrived, people started taking out their orchids from the stove-houses or the conditions prevailing there and provided with more air and light, but less heat. In addition, the plants were also given an appropriate growing media to thrive. As a result there were more orchids that flourished and flowered and this increased the interest among people to acquire and grow these plants.
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It is interesting to note that when growing in the wild, orchids have a symbiotic relationship with a fungus. This relation is known as mycorrhiza. What is further interesting is that when orchids are growing in nature, their seeds will not germinate unless the fungus infects them. Sometimes this proved to be a very frustrating situation for early orchid growers, especially those who are new into the field. Possibly, these early growers were unable to find any method to propagate orchids form their seeds more easily. This is more likely because a single orchid capsule usually contains as many as a million or even more minute dust-like seeds. Since the seeds are so minute, they have a very small globe of identical tissue. They, however, do not enclose any food reserve whatsoever.
Sometime around early 20th century, two European scientists Bernard and Burgeff, who worked independently, endeavoured to propagate orchids from their seeds in a sterile medium containing a culture of the appropriate fungus. While these scientists were successful to a certain extent, it was unfortunate that their work did not lead to a deluge of inexpensive orchid seedlings being available in the market. This was mainly because the process they followed seemed to be very technical as well as difficult to majority of the commercial nurserymen. However, Joseph Charlesworth was an exception. This man did not have any scientific training, but was able to master the technique followed by Bernard and Burgeff. By the time it was 1909, Charlesworth had not only hybridized orchids, but was growing thousands of odontoglossum seedlings at his nursery located in Haywards Heath, Sussex. In fact, majority of the crispum type hybrids that we see these days actually have their origin in the stud plants developed by Charlesworth.
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In the case of humans, except for identical twins, offspring from the same parent will not look the same in all aspects. This is also the case with orchids. In the early days, growers thought it was worth cultivating any orchid that they came across. However, hybridization has greatly helped in improving the quality of the flowers as well as the availability of the plants that we see today. Nevertheless, even the best and most desirable orchid from a large consignment of seedlings was frequently sold at exorbitant prices and usually most of the people could only admire their beauty in pictures and books.
Interestingly enough, after the 1960s, the price of even the best and most sought-after orchids dropped dramatically. This was mainly due to the introduction of techniques that made it possible to propagate majority types of orchids via the tissue culture method. These plants were called mericlones - the first syllable was drawn from the meristematic tissue that was use to initiate the tissue culture process, while the second syllable denotes that the plant has actually been created from its mother plant. Since the mericlones are not expensive and their price is just a little more compared to that of the seedlings, everyone who interested in growing orchids can obtain them, including several top quality orchids. However, it is unfortunate that at times several orchids that are distributed may not grow in the right manner or suffer from various other problems.
Here are some more details regarding orchids, albeit brief. The plant family to which orchids belong is a huge one and it is called Orchidaceae. They are different from other plant families because they pack their pollens in little wax-like bundles that are known as pollinia for the visiting insects to collect. This is a unique system, which does not allow any pollen grain to be lost, rather allowing visiting insects to carry the pollen grains from one orchid to another orchid, and by this means helping the fertilize the flowers.
Depending on their botanical resemblances, the orchids are divided into two groups - Phalaenopsis and Miltoniopsis. These two groups are known as genera. Each of these orchid genera comprises several species like Miltoniopsis vexillaria and Phalaenopsis sanderiana. Hybrids are created by crossing two species. In addition, they are also developed by combining two or additional genera to create intergeneric hybrids. As orchids can be interbred very easily, more easily compared to any other plant family, currently a huge number of hybrids is currently available.
On the other hand, propagation of orchids was difficult in early days and this is one reason why orchids were not only in short supply, but also very expensive for a while. Propagation of orchids by seeds was very sluggish and also uncertain. Hence, propagation by means of division was the sole method of ensuring propagation of desirable orchids. Conversely, orchids were a plaything for the affluent and titled till seed germination in a sterilized nutrient medium was discovered. This helped to raise large number of seedlings simultaneously. In due course of time, it became possible to propagate selected and desirable orchid specimens via tissue culture in a similar sterile nutrient media.