Amongst all flowers, I find Orchids to be the most bewitching. A red rose evokes a sense of romance, a lotus flower evokes a sense of serenity but the beautiful form and the vibrant colors of Orchids evoke a feeling of mystique. No wonder the earliest introduction of Orchids to Europe resulted in a frenzy amongst the high society to own the largest and rarest collection of these flowers. As the story goes, William Cattley (1788-1835) imported some tropical plants from Brazil. Amongst the packaging material he found some bulbs which he rescued and nurtured in his greenhouse to see if something interesting developed. The breathtaking flowers that bloomed came to be known as the "Queen of flowers" and captured the fancy of rich people who entered in a race to amass orchids. John Paxton, the head gardener for the duke of Devonshire, trained men and organized many trips to collect Orchids from far off lands. There are many stories of early Orchid hunting. Eric Hansen's book Orchid Fever: A horticultural tale of love, lust and lunacy tells the story of modern day orchid hunting.

Coming to the name, Orchid originates from the Greek word Orchis which means testicles. I wonder why Theophrastus ignored the striking flower and named the plant after the appearance of its paired root. At least, later, William Cattley was rewarded for rescuing this wonderful plant when John Lindley, the father of modern orchidology, named the flower Cattleya labiata, after him and the striking labium of the flower. John Lindley has Phragmipedium lindleyanum named after him. Benedict Roezl, a plant hunter and an adventurer collected some 800 new orchids and has the honor of having around 40 plants named after him!

At present the Royal Botanic Gardens of Kew list 880 genera and 22,000 species. In fact, 8% of all flowering plants are Orchids!! However, the academic world is still struggling to arrive at a consensus for classification of this largest family of flowering plants. Their job is further complicated by the constant development of new hybrids and cultivars. Members of Orchid family show a large range of flower size with the smallest flower being Bulbophyllum minutissimum and the largest being Grammatophyllum speciosum. The plants in the family Orchidaceae are grouped in five subfamilies. The subfamily Apostasioideae includes only two but most primitive genera: Neuwiedia and Apostasia which include 16 species. The subfamily Cypripedioideae includes five genera. These genera, namely, Cypripedium, Mexipedium, Paphiopedilum, Phragmipedium and Selenipedium are distinguished by their modified labellums which appear like slipper-shaped pouches and are therefore commonly known as Lady's slipper. The pouches serve in insect assisted pollination. The wonderful vanilla flavor in cakes and ice-creams that we all love is obtained from the member of subfamily Vanilloideae. This subfamily has 16 genera and 200 species. Vanilla fragrans belongs to subtribe Vanilleae. The family Orchidoideae includes about 208 genera and 3630 species. The type genus for this subfamily is Ophrys or the bee orchid. The last subfamily, Epidendroideae, is the largest group and includes more than 500 genera and about 20000 species. This subfamily includes the the most showy tropical genera such as Cattleya, Oncidium, Phalaenopsis and Vanda.

Orchids are not just enticing in appearance. These plants fascinate biologists for many reasons. Classification of Orchids is not very well understood because of lacking fossil evidence. Earlier, floral morphology overshadowed many other characteristics. At present research with DNA sequences is revealing many new facts that can help resolve the taxonomy of Orchids. Unlike other flowers that are radially symmetrical, Orchids are bilaterally symmetrical and their stamens and style are fused to form a complex structure called the gynostemium. This unique floral morphology allows researchers to study floral evolution using this plant system. Pollination in orchids is highly specialized and unique. It so fascinated Charles Darwin that he wrote a treatise titled: On Various Contrivances By Which British And Foreign Orchids are Fertilized By Insects And On The Good Effects Of Intercrosssing. Orchids provide a rare system where scientists can study floral evolution and mimicry.

For a long time Orchids have been uprooted from their natural habitat. Despite the fact that Orchids are cosmopolitan, they survive in very specific environmental conditions. Unscrupulous orchid collection, deforestation for farming, industrialization and human settlement are factors contributing to the endangerment of many wild orchid species. It is essential to conserve these wondrous plants which evoke a sense of beauty and mystery amongst all. I think this poem by Helen M. Fleet says it beautifully:

Wild Orchid
"The flower that walks", the Indian; said,
And walking spreads its crown-like roots
Through forest glades and upland dales.
Moccasin flower or Lady's Slipper,
It matters not the name
Or if it be fair white or rose or tiny yellow kind
Tis ever rare and wondrous there
This woodland beauty
Bequeathed us from another age.
A Heritage to guard with care
And cherish for posterity
That other eyes in future years
May see this Orchid walk the trails
As did our native Indian braves
And shy eyed maidens of the tribe.