The family encompasses about 6–11% of all seed plants. The largest genera are Bulbophyllum (2,000 species), Epidendrum (1,500 species), Dendrobium (1,400 species) and Pleurothallis (1,000 species). It also includes Vanilla–the genus of the vanilla plant, the type genus Orchis, and many commonly cultivated plants such as Phalaenopsis and Cattleya. Moreover, since the introduction of tropical species into cultivation in the 19th century, horticulturists have produced more than 100,000 hybrids and cultivars.
Orchids are an incredibly unique and fascinating group of plants. Many people can identify a Phalaenopsis (moth orchid) or Cattleya (the old corsage orchids), but the question often is asked, “What makes an orchid an orchid?” Orchids have some morphological (physical) traits that make them stand out from other plant families. In orchids, many of their floral parts come in groups of three. There are three sepals, which are the outer petals; these are what you see when you look at an unopened bud. There are also three petals, but in orchids one of the petals has been specialized into a labellum, or lip. This is usually the bottommost petal, and it helps to attract the pollinator to the reproductive organ. In orchids the reproductive organ, known as the column, combines both the male and female parts in one structure.
Using the molecular clock method, it was possible to determine the age of the major branches of the orchid family. This also confirmed that the subfamily Vanilloideae is a branch at the basal dichotomy of the monandrous orchids, and must have evolved very early in the evolution of the family. Since this subfamily occurs worldwide in tropical and subtropical regions, from tropical America to tropical Asia, New Guinea and West Africa, and the continents began to split about 100 million years ago, significant biotic exchange must have occurred after this split (since the age of Vanilla is estimated at 60 to 70 million years).
The underground tubers of terrestrial orchids [mainly Orchis mascula (early purple orchid)] are ground to a powder and used for cooking, such as in the hot beverage salep or in the Turkish frozen treat dondurma. The name salep has been claimed to come from the Arabic expression ḥasyu al-tha‘lab, "fox testicles", but it appears more likely the name comes directly from the Arabic name saḥlab. The similarity in appearance to testes naturally accounts for salep being considered an aphrodisiac.
Masdevallia is one of my favorite types of orchids! They have triangular flowers (the petals are tiny, so you just see the three sepals.) They need cool temperatures to do well, and like a lot of humidity, but are otherwise quite easy to grow. (But they have a reputation as being hard to grow from people who've ignored their temperature and humidity requirements.)
Also called the Lady’s Slipper orchid, this type of flower is easy to grow and is great for the beginner flower-grower. They come in a wide variety of colors, including cheery colors such as pink, white, and yellow, as well as more somber colors such as brown, burgundy, and near-black tones. In addition, many of the varieties include petals that have bristly hairs, freckles, and even stripes, with an added bonus of specks on some of the varieties’ leaves.