By THÉRÈSE MARGOLIS
In the world of plants, nothing arouses passions like an orchid.
Throughout history, collectors have bartered for them, displayed them in royal palaces, placed them under armed military guards, stolen them, waged wars over them and risked their lives in dark, rainforest jungles to obtain the showiest or most recently discovered bloom in what is now a $100-billion a year a year industry worldwide.
So lucrative are orchids that in Europe, organized crime syndicates specializing in smuggling rare specimens have sprung up, and several years ago, in California, a collection of 30 cymbidium orchids with a combined value in excess of $30,000 were stolen from a private collection in the San Francisco Bay area.
In ancient China, Confucius referred to as them as “the king of fragrant plants,” and the Incan monarchs called it “the flower of ascension” because it was found to blossom on the highest peaks of the Andes.
Here in Mexico, orchids have been revered and cultivated since pre-Columbian times, when the graceful flower was used as a foodstuff (and still is: the vanilla flower is actually an orchid!), an adornment for special ceremonial occasions and a gift of sacrifice to the gods.
In 1570, King Phillip II of Spain sent his court physician Francisco Hernández de Toledo to Mexico to find new flora medicines to treat illnesses, and Hernández came back seven years later with five specimens of the flower.
Louis XIII’s personal chef Battelle once said that “harmony and contrast are the detonators of all that is beautiful,” and there is no flower, no plant on Earth that offers so much harmony and contrast as the orchid.
Indeed, according to the International Horticultural Society, the Orchidaceae or orchid family is the most varied and widespread of all flowering plants, almost dizzying in its diversity.
Over the past 80 million years, more than 25,000 wild species have taken root on six continents, representing a fourth of the world’s flowering flora.
There are, in fact, four times as many orchid species as mammals, and twice as many as birds.
You can find orchids in practically every type of habitat on Earth, with the exception of the Artic and sand deserts.
It is an extremely versatile flower in that is adapts to nearly every type of environment, and yet, it is also an extremely delicate flower, which many of its species in sore danger of extinction.
Because of global climate change, slash-and-burn farming practices, deforestation, irresponsible harvesting practices and international smuggling, at least 10 percent of the world’s orchid species are threatened with extinction.
But while in Mexico the orchid industry is growing at an unprecedented rate and now represents more than $20 million in annual imports and exports (including vanilla sales, which have dropped off dramatically in recent years), for the most part, Mexican orchid aficionados are more interested in the plant’s intrinsic beauty than its commercial value.
Mexico is blessed to have about 1,400 indigenous species – 60 percent of them being endemic, which means that they only grow here.
In the last decade, we have witnessed the extinction of 27 species of orchids in Mexico and about 200 other species are considered endangered.
Several indigenous species, such as the Laelia gouldiana and the Catlaya Chilapensecan, can only be found in private farms because they can no longer survive in what was their natural habitat.
The 300-member-strong, nonprofit Mexican Orchid Association (AMO) is working closely with the Secretariat of the Environment and Natural Resources (Semarnat) organizing exhibitions, seminars and classes to encourage responsible stewardship of the nation’s floral heritage.
The Semarnat has also set up an orchid nursery in Mexico City’s Parque Bicentenario which houses more than 7,000 plants, including 35 native Mexican species and 120 hybrids from around the world, which has received financial support and orchid clones from the AMO.
What is it that makes orchids so fascinating, both to responsible collectors and illegal poachers?
To begin with, the flowers are beautiful and exotic and come in so many colors and forms that they beguile the imagination.
But people are also drawn to them by their mysterious way of living off of nothing and vanishing without a trace.
Because deceased orchids do not decay in the same way that most plants do, there are in fact very little archeological traces of the flower, which makes it difficult to trace its genetic history.
There was a recent discovery in the Dominican Republic of a petrified bee with orchid pollen on its wings inside a piece of amber.
That bee is believed to have been about 20 to 30 million years old, and it is the earliest and only ancient evidence we have of the history of orchids.
About 95 percent of orchids are found on trees, but they are technically not parasites.
They get their nourishment not from the trees, but from the air and humidity around them.
What distinguishes the orchid from other flowers is its unique floral structure, typically with an outer whorl of three sepals, an inner whorl of three petals and a single large column (the gynostemium, composed of the male stamens attached to the female pistil) in the center.
The hermaphroditic orchid is also unique in that most species can fertilize themselves without the help of sticky liquids, birds or even a breath of wind.
Every orchid species is different in the size and the color of its flower and in the odor it emits.
Some orchids are gigantic and some are so small you can only disctinguish the bloom with the help of a magnifying glass. S
Some orchids smell like a wonderful blend of jasmine and roses, and others actually smell like dead meat because they want to attract flies to help in their pollination process.
The father of botany, Theophrastus, a Greek scientist and metaphysical sholar who lived in the third century BC, is credited with naming the orchid for the word “orchis” (“testicle”) because of the resemblance of its paired underground tubers to masculine anatomy. (This resemblance was also responsible for the mistaken belief that the orchids possessed aphrodisiac properties and eating of underground tubers might encourage Venus to help them beget male offspring.)
The majority of Mexican orchids are found in central and southern Mexico, in the states of Sonora, Durango, Jalisco, Michoacán, the State of Mexico, Morelos, Hidalgo, Guerrero, Tabasco, Veracruz and Chiapas, especially in the humid rainforests.
The most common Mexican orchid is the Laelia autumnalis.