Featured Creature: Orchids

Phalaenopsis amabilis or moth orchid; Native to southeastern Asia and parts of Australia. Photo by Encyclopedia Britannica.

Which species is known for its world-renowned beauty, has a special connection to Colombia, and inspired the creation of two delicious dessert flavors?


Phalaenopsis amabilis or moth orchid; Native to southeastern Asia and parts of Australia. Photo by Encyclopedia Britannica.

Beauty comes with age

Orchids are one of the oldest flowering plants on the planet. Since there are a variety of subspecies around the world (excluding Antarctica), botanists believe that the orchid was around during the time of Pangaea (the supercontinent). Orchids can survive for 100 years. Imagine the many historical events they have witnessed, as a collective and as individuals.

There are more than 25,000 species of orchids – making them the largest flower family. If that isn’t flower power, I don’t know what is! Each species is distinct, from size to color to texture. The smallest orchid, Platystele Jungermannioides, is as small as a dime. On the opposite end, the largest one, “Grammatophyllum Speciosum,” weighs 2,000 lbs and can reach 10 ft high. They have quite the range!

Platanthera blephariglottis; Native to U.S. and Canadian East Coast. Photo by Jim Fowler.


There are more orchids in the country of Colombia than there are anywhere else in the world. About 4,000 species exist throughout the nation, and almost half (about 1,500) are endemic, meaning they don’t exist anywhere else on Earth.

Before Spanish colonization, the Aztecs in this region used orchids for perfume, cooking purposes, and one special species, Vanilla planifolia, for its vanilla bean (due to its sweet flavor). The Aztecs would ground the seed pods of the vanilla orchid and mix them with the seeds of the cacao plant – creating a drink that would become the foundation of today’s well-known dessert flavor: chocolate.

To this day, orchids are adored by Colombians. The national flower, Cattleya Trianae, was named after a famous Colombian botanist, José Jerónimo Triana, and was chosen for its colors. Also known as the “Christmas orchid,” this flower appears to have 3 colors on its underside: yellow, blue, and red, which are the colors of the Colombian flag.

If you watched Disney’s movie Encanto, which was based in a rural Colombian town, you might have noticed the character Isabela with these flowers. As someone with Colombian heritage, I can attest to this love for orchids. For three generations, our family’s favorite flower has been the orchid. We identify with their resilience, vibrance, and elegance, and appreciate the uniqueness of every individual. 

Cattleya Trianae or Christmas orchid; Native to Colombia. Photo by Flickr.

Adaptable… almost

An orchid’s leaf shape, density, and color depend on its environment. Orchids that live in dry climates possess thick leaves covered with wax to keep them moist and healthy. In comparison, species that live in tropical regions have thin, long leaves. Other species lack leaves altogether. These region-specific adaptations have allowed orchids to thrive in almost every corner of the globe.

Another trait that allows orchids to specialize in their environment is their ability to adapt along local fauna. Orchids tend to have exclusive relationships with certain pollinating species including bees, wasps, flies, birds, moths, and even fungi. Each orchid subspecies has a different tactic to incentivize pollinators to land on their flowers, but every method is complex and sophisticated. After all, you don’t get to spread across the globe without knowing a thing or two about symbiosis!

Unfortunately, now that environmental conditions are rapidly changing, many orchid species are becoming endangered. Changing microclimates make it difficult for these specialized flowers to continue flourishing. On top of climate change, deforestation and a worldwide high-demand market threatens orchids of all kinds. People admire their beauty so much that they want it for themselves, contributing to the displacement of these plants.

We can appreciate nature’s rarity, complexity, and magic without attempting to keep it all for ourselves. When we appreciate entire ecosystems, and the role each plant and animal has in that ecosystem, we learn to let go of the idea of ‘owning’ and displaying individuals, and move towards a more harmonious world where humans and flowers can each have space to grow.

From Colombia to the world,