The Scientific Journey of the Affordable Orchid

In the past, orchids were a symbol of conspicuous consumption. The flowers are beautiful, yet their value lay in the fact that they were hard to propagate, demand exact conditions to survive, and take years to bloom. Orchid lovers could devote their lives to the challenge of caring for them, or spend ridiculous amounts of money buying more. Today, a few of the 10,000+ species of orchid can be bought at stores all over for the same price as other houseplants. What happened?  

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It took around 400 years of trying for anyone to understand what makes an orchid seed grow into a plant. The smallest orchid seeds weigh less than a microgram and are as tiny as a human sperm, and for many years scholars in Europe believed that orchid flowers grew from fermenting semen left behind in fields and forests by goats or birds. Only in the 16th century did a scientist first identify and describe their seeds.

Europe has hundreds of orchid species of its own, but the orchids that drove plant people to madness and obsession came from across the ocean. In the early 1800s, naturalists started shipping flouncy, bright cattleya orchids from tropical Brazil back to England. These flowers grow larger than a person’s palm, and they drip with color and ripple along their petal edges. But no one could figure out how to create more of them. A single pod can contain millions of seeds, and all of them might fail to grow, whether they’re sown on pieces of fern, strips of cork, patches of moss—at one time growers tried anything that seemed like it might work. Demand for these tropical orchids kept rising, but no one in Europe could reliably produce them. Orchid fever ran so hot that the wealthiest orchid lovers hired professional collectors to travel to faraway jungles and send plants back home.

The great orchid turnaround began when plant physiologist Lewis Knudson began studying why orchid seeds were hard to grow in the early 20th century, and continued when cell biologist Donald Wimber experimented with orchids in the 1950s. Read the fascinating history of orchids at Atlas Obscura.

(Image credit: © Marie-Lan Nguyen / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY 2.5)

Source: neatorama

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