An Orchid’s Best Friend

Physics

By Allison Kubo Hutchison

Although today it may be easy to buy your maternal figure an orchid for Mother’s Day from the grocery store, in the 1800s, the acquisition of orchids was a dangerous, competitive and lucrative business. Orchids, which are generally tropical plants, grow across the globe and their family makes up 6-11% of all seed plants.

In the height of the Orchidelierum, the craze for the plants that gripped European aristocrats in the 1800s, some orchids could sell for $2000. An amount roughly equivalent to $25,000 today. Rich collectors would hire explorers to collect specimens from the Andes, Indonesia, and across the continent. Due to the harsh conditions and long journeys, few hunters and even fewer orchids survived the voyage. At the time they were unable to cultivate orchids from seed and had to rely on wild orchids and try to propagate new orchids from healthy mature orchids, a process that took decades.

A scientific study of orchids revealed why they were so difficult to cultivate: they were missing an important aspect of the orchid habitat. Many orchid species rely on a complex symbiosis with fungi to propagate their seeds and to flourish in the wild. These fungi, broadly called orchids mycorrhiza, are specialized for each type of orchid and are often only found associated with their preferred orchid species. During the seed stage, these mutualistic fungi inhabit and feed the seed which did not evolve to have any nutrient stores on its own. The symbiosis of the two organisms continues through the orchid life cycle and various different fungi, each orchid having a multitude of cooperating species, feed the plant phosphorus, nitrogen, and carbon. When the fungal networks start to degrade the plants can even absorb them through their roots. As the orchid ages, the complexity and biodiversity of fungi that it partners with increases. Considering the immense biodiversity of orchids, orchids mycorrhizae represent approximately 10% of all botanical biodiversity on Earth.

In 1902, Lewis Knudson, a botanist at Cornell University, introduced a method to cultivate orchids mimicking the environment created by the symbiotic fungus. Using agar gel, or another rich nutrient broth, in an extremely sanitary environment the small seeds were able to grow. With the ability to grow from seed, horticulturists have made 100,000s of unique hybrid orchids and this has also brought the price down significantly. Still growing orchids is a laborious process and the beautiful grocery store variety takes years to grow from minuscule seeds to Mother’s Day gifts.

Image Credit: Illustration by Sarah Ann Drake from Sertum orchidaceum: a wreath of the most beautiful orchidaceous flowers (1838) selected by John Lindley.

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