— By Nan Sterman
The orchid house is actually two small greenhouses and an outside area chock full of fantastic, beautiful orchids. The unusual thing about this collection is how it came to be. These orchids came to the US illegally and were confiscated by the US Fish and Wildlife Service.
Orchids, like many other plants, fall under the protection of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora – “CITES” for short. Plants that are protected under CITES also include species of cycads, palms, cacti, medicinal plants and others. When those protected plants are confiscated at our borders, they don’t just get boxed up and returned in the mail. Instead, they are sent to a designated Plant Rescue Centers (PRCs). There are 80 designated PRCs at botanical gardens, research centers, and other institutions in 24 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico. Different kinds of plants go to different PRCs; luckily for us, the Zoo’s PRC houses orchids.
Orchids: Brains and Beauty
When I visit the orchids, I can’t ever seem to tear myself away. The variety of plant shapes and sizes is almost as amazing as the variety of flower shapes and sizes. Some are as big as softballs, others as tiny as pinheads.
Most orchids are epiphytes (they grow anchored on the branches of trees and other plants), while others are terrestrials so they grow directly in the ground. Some have rounded flowers, others are triangular, and still other flowers are almost tube shaped. Some flowers point downward (pendant),others are oriented so I look at the flowers face-to-face.
Orchid colors nearly span the rainbow; oranges, pinks, yellows, whites, purples, greens, burgundy, reds… I’ve never seen true blue orchids, though some on the market are dyed blue; they look very unnatural.
While the diversity of orchid flower shapes and markings look fantastical and random to us, these highly evolved flowers are anything but random. If you were a potential pollinator, those markings would be like an orchid billboard, beckoning you to, in biological terms, “pseudocopulate.” Here are some articles (1, 2) about the fascinating sex life of orchids and their pollinators.
Fragrance is another way that flowers, particularly white and other pale color flowers, attract pollinators. In the humid air of the orchid greenhouse, those fragrances are amplified – enhancing the intoxicating human experience.
Visit the Orchid House
The San Diego Zoo’s orchid house sits behind big gates hidden from the Zoo’s public areas. On the third Friday of every month, they open thegates and invite in the public from 10 am to 2 pm. If you are an orchid lover (and who isn’t an orchid lover???), don’t miss your chance to tour the collection.
DID YOU KNOW…
Vanilla flavoring is derived from vanilla orchids, 50 to 75 ft. tall terrestrial or epiphytic vines native to Mexico. While there are several species, Vanilla planifolia is used in commercial vanilla production. A tiny bee pollinates the yellow-green vanilla orchid flowers, which eventually form a bean that is cured to bring out their vanilla essence. The term “bean” is a misnomer since Vanilla orchids are not related to beans, even though their seedpods have similar shapes.