Archives For The Orchid Show

There’s only one reason orchid flowers look so beautiful and smell so good: to attract a pollinator. Some orchids engage in mimicry, evolving to look like the pollinator they’re trying to lure. Other orchids look familiar to humans, even though there is no connection for the flower. There’s a word for the phenomenon, pareidolia.

Roll over each orchid to reveal its look-alike. See an array of beautiful orchids at the Orchid Show at the Chicago Botanic Garden, through March 13. 

Ophrys apifera, "bee orchid"Bee


Ophrys apifera

Known as the bee orchid, this species not only looks like a female bee, but it smells like one, too. Male bees land, hoping to mate, only to be fooled into transporting pollen from one flower to another.

Caleana major,  "flying duck orchid"Duck


Caleana major

Animals as large as a duck are too big to pollinate an orchid…but when the sawflies that are the right size land on the “beak” or labellum of the flower, their weight springs them downward into contact with the pollen.

Psychopsis papilio, "butterfly orchids"Atlas moth


Psychopsis papilio

Looks like a butterfly, is named for the butterfly (papilio is the Latin word), and flutters like a butterfly at the top of its long, delicate step. Yes, it’s pollinated by butterflies.

Dracula, "monkey orchid"Monkey


Dracula
sp.

Orchids in the genus Dracula are called monkey orchids, but their charmingly face-like flowers are calling out to fruit fly pollinators, not to monkeys.

Brassia, "spider orchid"Spider


Brassia
sp.

Spider orchids are wily—they developed the look of a spider in order to attract spider wasps as pollinators. The wasp lands on the labellum, tries to sting it, gets covered in pollen instead, and flies off to its next prey.

Peristeria elata, "dove orchid"Dove


Peristeria elata

Look deep into the center of a dove orchid to see the tiny bird with widespread wings. When a Euglossine bee lands on the flower’s hinged lip, it trips a hinge that throws the bee against the pollen-bearing column (the head of the dove). The national flower of Panama, the dove orchid is increasingly rare.


Some photos courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Test your Orchid IQ—how do orchid roots work?

Roots Rock! 5 Things You Should Know About Orchid Roots

Karen Z. —  February 25, 2016 — Leave a comment

The first time you walk under a big, lush tangle of orchid roots at the Orchid Show can be quite disconcerting—what are those big white things dangling in the air, you wonder, and how do they work?

Let’s look at those roots from a different angle, so that the next time you walk under them, you’ll know more about what you’re seeing.

PHOTO: Epiphytic orchids.

Most orchids are epiphytes. An epiphyte is a plant that grows on another plant (not in soil), but is not parasitic.

They’re Called Aerial Roots

Of the 27,000-plus species of orchids on the planet, about 70 percent are epiphytes—plants that grow on trees, with above-ground rather than in-ground roots. Known as aerial roots, they act as anchors and supports as they wrap around branches and trunks, stabilizing the plant as it grows. Roots are an orchid’s lifeline, absorbing water and nutrients from the air and from the leaf litter in the tree niche it inhabits.

Orchid Roots Are Adventitious

That is, an orchid’s roots can grow along the stem of the plant, not just out of the bottom of it. The advantage of being adventitious? Plants can be propagated easily. Many orchids grow baby plantlets, called keikis, that can be removed from the mother plant along with their own set of adventitious roots.

PHOTO: Phalaenopsis orchid with keiki (baby orchid offshoot).

The keiki growing at the top of this Phalaenopsis floral stem has grown large enough to be transplanted.

The White Stuff Is Velamen

An aerial root should look fleshy and green; the white coating that covers it is called the velamen. Thin and rather papery, but spongy and protective, it’s a one-way water barrier that allows moisture to soak in—and keeps it from oozing out.

PHOTO: Orchid root showing velamen layer.

Whitish velamen covers the orchid’s roots.

If the velamen appears dried or rotted, it should be stripped off up to where it’s healthy and white, leaving the wiry inner root to help stabilize the plant once it’s in the pot.

Roots Signal Plant Health

At the Orchid Show, you get to see lush, healthy roots close up. At home, your orchid’s roots will usually be contained in its pot. Roots growing out of and over the edge of a pot signal that it’s time for re-potting—which gives you the opportunity to examine your plant for overall root health. Plump, green roots look and are healthy; yellow, spotted, black, or dried out roots indicate that it’s time to re-think how you’re caring for your orchid.

PHOTO: Orchid repotting.

Learn more about repotting Phalaenopsis and other orchids in our blog.

Roots Can Rot

Overwatering is the number one threat to an orchid plant. Orchid roots rot easily if given too much water—with no switch to prevent roots from pulling in excess water, the plant can drown if left standing in a full saucer. That’s one reason why orchid pots typically have extra drainage holes.

To correctly water an orchid, remove the pot from its saucer to the sink. Run water gently but thoroughly through the plant for a minute or two. Then allow the plant to drain completely before returning it to its saucer; repeat weekly.

PHOTO: Oncidium Twinkle 'Red'

Oncidium Twinkle ‘Red’

Orchid roots are awesome! Come see for yourself at the Orchid Show, running through March 13, 2016.


©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

How Love and Science May Defend a Wild Orchid

Undercover Science

Julianne Beck —  February 18, 2016 — Leave a comment

Life on the prairie hasn’t been a breeze for the beautiful eastern prairie fringed orchid (Platanthera leucophaea).

Once common across the Midwest and Canada, the enchanting wildflower caught the attention of collectors and was overharvested throughout the 1900s. At the same time, large portions of its wet prairie, sedge meadow, and wetland habitat were converted to agriculture. By 1989, just 20 percent of the original population of Platanthera leucophaea remained, and the orchid was added to the federally threatened species list.

PHOTO: Claire Ellwanger takes a leaf sample in the field.

Claire Ellwanger takes a leaf sample in the field.

The struggles of the captivating orchid did not go unnoticed. Its lacey white flowers and unique biological attributes sparked a passion in scientists and volunteers across the Midwest who began gathering leaf samples for genetic analysis and recording measurements on the health of certain populations. Some volunteers dedicated decades to this work, and many continue to monitor their assigned location today.

As long ago as the mid 1800s, an earlier generation of the wildflower’s enthusiasts had preserved samples of actual plants, pressing them onto archival paper with their field notes and placing them in long-term storage facilities called herbaria, for future reference. As it turns out, some of the plant materials they saved are from populations that no longer exist.

Now, all of that data is coming together for the first time in a research study by graduate student Claire Ellwanger.

The master’s degree candidate—in a Plant Biology and Conservation graduate program run by the Chicago Botanic Garden and Northwestern University—is using modern analysis tools to uncover the genetic history of the species. What she finds will give scientists a better picture of the present-day status of genetic diversity of the species, and insight into the best ways to manage it for the future.

PHOTO: Clarie Ellwanger measures orchid seed pods in the field.

Claire Ellwanger measures orchid seed pods in the field.

“This orchid is a pretty interesting species because there has been this massive volunteer effort for over 20 years to restore it in Illinois,” noted Ellwanger, who said that Illinois currently houses more populations, or locations, of the species than any other state.

She is focused on collecting and analyzing genetic information on the remaining plants, working with field collectors in the Midwest from Iowa to Ohio, and also from Maine. She is examining the genes, or DNA, of each of the sampled populations, along with genetic information she collected at eight sites right here in Illinois.

Ellwanger is also extracting DNA from the older herbarium samples to better understand how much genetic diversity was a part of the species in the past. “The herbarium samples will allow us to get a sense of historic genetic variation to compare to levels today,” she explained.

Along with her thesis advisor, Garden molecular ecologist Jeremie Fant, Ph.D., she is especially interested in finding ways to maintain genetic diversity. “We know that if you are able to preserve the most genetic diversity in a species, it is more likely to persist for longer,” she explained.

PHOTO: Extracted DNA is ready for analysis in the laboratory.

Extracted DNA is ready for analysis in the laboratory.

In the lab today with her research assistant, Laura Steger, she uses a genetic fingerprinting technique on all groups in her study subjects. By watching the same sequence of genes over time and locations, she can see clear patterns and any changes. The bonus to it all is that “understanding more about these plants and their genetic variation will be pretty applicable to other species that have undergone the same processes,” she noted.

As scientists and volunteers worked in the field over the last several decades, they did more than collect genetic information. They also took steps to boost new seed production by hand pollinating plants or conducting a form of seed dispersal. Through her study, Ellwanger is also tracking the success of each technique. “I’ll be able to complete a genetic comparison over time to see if these recovery goals are achieving what they set out to do,” she said, by comparing the genetic composition of a given population from the recent past to today.

PHOTO: A compound light microscope reveals some plump, fertile embryos inside seeds

A compound light microscope reveals some plump, fertile embryos inside seeds.

At sites Ellwanger visited personally, she collected seeds as well, and brought them back to the lab for examination. There, looking under a compound light microscope, she checked to see what percentage of seed embryos from the sites were plump and therefore viable. Her findings offer an additional perspective on what her genetic analysis will show. After examination, the seeds were returned to their field location.

In early analysis results, “it looks like reproductive fitness does differ between sites so it will be really interesting to see if those sites that have lower reproductive fitness also have higher levels of inbreeding,” noted Ellwanger. Inbreeding, the mating of closely related individuals, can result in reduced biological fitness in the population of plants. In such cases, it could be helpful to bring in pollen or seed from other populations to minimize mating with close relatives and strengthen populations for future generations.

PHOTO: Eastern prairie fringed orchid (Platanthera leucophaea).

Eastern prairie fringed orchid (Platanthera leucophaea)

The eastern prairie fringed orchid will soon be better understood than ever before. The findings of the study may also provide insight into other problems that may be happening in the prairies where they live. “Orchids will be some of the first organisms to disappear once a habitat starts to be degraded. If we can better understand what’s going on with this plant it, could help out similar species,” said Ellwanger.

The researcher is looking forward to the impact this work could have on the future of the plant and the habitat that sustains it. “What motivates me about research is definitely the conservation implications,” said Ellwanger, who developed her love of conservation while growing up on the East Coast and learning about the complex systems that play a role in the health of the environment.

Read more about orchid research at the Garden, and don’t forget to visit the Orchid Show, open through March 13, 2016.


©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

On this Valentine’s Day weekend—which also marks the opening of the Orchid Show!—we share two tales of love, both about the same ravishingly beautiful flower, commonly called the Lady’s Slipper Orchid.

The first story has its roots in the ancient Greek myths. Flower legend says that the goddess Aphrodite (Venus to the Romans) was out hunting with the handsome mortal Adonis, when a powerful storm forced them to seek shelter together in a cave. Love ensued. Post-storm, the lovers ran off—Venus, minus one slipper. A mortal human came across the shoe and reached down to pick it up, when suddenly and magically it transformed into a flower with a slipper-shaped petal of gold.

PHOTO: Orchid in bloom.

Cypripedium calceolus slipper orchid

The Lady’s Slipper orchid’s beautiful binomial (two-part) Latin name, Cypripedium calceolus, was given it by none other than Linnaeus himself (Carl von Linné), who listed it in Species Plantarum in 1753. The great botanist packed a lot of meaning into that name: Cyprus was the sacred island of Venus’s birth, pedilon is the word for slipper, and calceolus means little shoe.

The Lady’s Slipper orchid is native to a broad swatch of the temperate world, from Europe through Asia. While still common in some wild areas, the orchid’s beauty has made it over-loved in others—it is now considered extinct in Greece, the very home of its ancient legend.

And that brings us to our second love story.

The flower fervor that swept through Britain in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries not only raised demand for the exotic plants of the world but also took a toll on the native plants of the English countryside. Loss of habitat and over-collection by humans diminished the native Lady’s Slipper Orchid’s numbers until, in the early 1980s, just one plant remained in the wild in the entire country.

PHOTO: "Orchid-gami" of a showy lady's slipper orchid.

Make your own lady’s slipper orchid—no watering required! Just print this 2-sided template from the NAOCC, cut, and fold!

Placed under last-resort protection, it was nurtured along until it gained strength and eventually bloomed. Its seeds were collected and sent to Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, where a conservation program was put into place. Eventually, the difficult-to-germinate seeds germinated. Seedlings, which take 5 to 10 years to flower, have since been re-introduced into the wild in an attempt to re-populate the species there.

This modern-day love story has devotion and commitment and conservation at its heart.

At the Orchid Show, you’ll learn more about the orchid conservation efforts that the Chicago Botanic Garden is committed to—including the work of the North American Orchid Conservation Center, which sponsors a terrific website about our continent’s native orchids at goorchids.northamericanorchidcenter.org.

PHOTO: Cypripedium Gisela gx Lady's Slipper orchid.

This Cypripedium Gisela lady’s slipper cultivar can be found blooming in the Heritage Garden in late May.

While there won’t be any Cypripedium calceolus plants in bloom at the Orchid Show (they’re terrestrial orchids that don’t bloom until spring), lots of other slipper orchids in the Paphiopedilum and Phragmipedium genera will capture your imagination and attention.

Take a selfie with your favorite and share it #theorchidshow @chicagobotanic. Hashtag your favorite orchid #cbgOrchid16 to enter our Instagram photo contest. Want to learn more about orchids? Read our blog posts!

And have a Happy Valentine’s Day, everyone!

Vanilla cookies, vanilla perfume, and everything vanilla swept through my nostrils at a scented display at last year’s Orchid Show. The sweet smell was a great way to show many visitors that vanilla comes from the fruits of the vanilla orchid (Vanilla planifolia).

PHOTO: Orchid pods on the farm have dates scribbled on them in permanent marker, to help estimate a harvest date.

What are the scribbles about? Orchid pods are dated to estimate how long the pods have been on the vine, possibly to determine a good time to harvest them.

As a docent at last year’s show, I was eager to show off the Garden’s vanilla plant (located in the Tropical Greenhouse next to the banana trees), because I knew that may visitors didn’t know that they had an orchid in their spice cabinet.

Currently, I am in the second year of my research of the vanilla orchid. Vanilla is an exciting plant to study because it grows as a vine with two different types of roots. These roots help vanilla grow as a vine (more precisely a hemiepiphyte) because terrestrial roots anchor it within the soil, and epiphytic roots anchor it to tree trunks. My last post, Vanilla inhabitants: The search for associated bacteria and fungi, showcased my ongoing experiment in Mexico. This included collecting roots from four different Mexican farms that had very different practices for how they grew the orchid. We know that vanilla orchids use their epiphytic roots for support, but what other functions do they perform? Do they also form symbiotic relationships with fungal partners to obtain nutrients and water, like terrestrial roots?

Monocultures—crops with genetically identical heritage—are common in vanilla cultivation.

PHOTO: Many vanilla plantations use man-made structures for the vining orchids. Here, an old tree provides support to this orchid.

Many vanilla plantations use man-made structures for the vining orchids. Here, an old tree provides support to this orchid.

The fungal partners of orchids, known as mycorrhizal fungi, help an orchid start its life by providing needed nutrients for its seeds to germinate. No orchids in the wild can germinate without one or more mycorrhizal fungi. As a scientist, my goal is to study the interactions that the vanilla orchid has with these fungi as they mature. This is important because most vanilla farms are monocultures—it is easier to obtain clones from cuttings of vanilla than to germinate them from seeds. This, however, creates serious problems, because farms that have low genetic diversity in their vanilla orchids can lose their entire crop if a disease (such as root rot caused by Fusarium) appears.

Prior reports based on classic techniques have documented two or three species of mycorrhizal fungi within vanilla roots. In addition to these mycorrhizal fungi, there are also fungal pathogens (fungi that cause disease) and fungal endophytes (fungi that seem to have a mutualistic relationship with the host) that colonize a vanilla’s root.

To further investigate the situation, I ran an experiment using the latest DNA technology—Next Generation Sequencing (NGS)—to document the communities of fungi within terrestrial and epiphytic vanilla roots.

As fungal endophytes take up nutrients from their host, the mycotoxins they produce reduce herbivory and susceptibility to pathogens.

PHOTO: A length of canopies shields the growing vanilla orchids from harsh direct sunlight.

A length of canopies shields the growing vanilla orchids from harsh direct sunlight.

I documented 142 species of fungi associated with vanilla roots from the four Mexican farms, with an average of nine fungi colonizing a single vanilla root at one time. Of these 142 species, 20 are likely mycorrhizal. I find that fascinating, because these mycorrhizal fungi were found within both root types and across all farms. It was also surprising to know that epiphytic roots have a similar diversity of mycorrhizal fungi as terrestrial roots even though the epiphytic roots were green and could photosynthesize and have been considered primarily as support structures.

My study also documented a high number of previously unreported species of fungal pathogens and fungal endophytes colonized the roots of vanilla plants. This means that if plants are unhealthy, fungal pathogens likely can quickly take over, because they are already present within the roots. Overall, vanilla roots have good and bad partners just like we do, but contain more beneficial fungi (fungal endophytes and mycorrhizal fungi) than previously believed. These beneficial fungi not only supply the plant with water and nutrients, but also help control fungal pathogens. Thus, they are essential for plant health.

This research is funded with support from Mexican collaborators as part of the SAGARPA-CONACYT-SNITT 2012-04-190442 Mexican Vanilla Project.

PHOTO: Vanilla planifolia (vanilla orchid) in bloom.

Learn more about the orchids in your kitchen cabinet with our Vanilla Infographic; read up on another edible orchid in A Sip of Salep. Stay tuned for more orchid research projects, amazing orchid displays, and fun facts on our blog. The Orchid Show opens February 13!


©2016 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org