Orchids, vital for a forest ecosystem

Orchids, vital for a forest ecosystem


Orchids are sensitive to even the slightest disturbance to their habitat. With tremendous pressure on natural resources, particularly forest resources, orchids and their habitats are constantly under threat, writes K S Shashidhar

Unique species: A hybrid of ‘paphiopedilum’ (also called the ‘Lady Slipper’). Photo by the authorOrchids are highly appreciated because of their sheer beauty and variety. The delicate-looking moth orchid (phalaenopsis), the elegant dancing doll (oncidium), the exquisite lady slipper orchid (paphiopedilum) and the flamboyant cattleyas are only a few of them.

They come in all shapes and sizes. The biggest orchid, grammatophyllum speciosum blume, weighing about half a ton, produces a flower stalk, about 2.5-metre-long, bearing 100 flowers with each flower measuring 13 cm across.

Orchids are unique flowering plants under the botanical family Orchidaceae and are one of the largest flowering families in the entire plant kingdom. They occur in almost all the continents except in the polar region. There are over 25,000 – 30,000 species. They grow generally on tree tops and branches and are known as epiphytes. Those growing on the ground in grasslands and moist humus areas are known as terrestrials. 

Relationship with other biota

The patterns of growth of orchid plants are also unique with many of them being sympodial in nature, while some are monopodials. The most attractive part of the flower is the ‘lip’ or labellum, which is larger than other petals, and forms different shapes and sizes often with contrasting marks, blotches, striations and frilled edges.

This part also attracts insects and other pollinating agents to enable its propagation. Apart from the aesthetic appeal which is its main feature, many orchids are known to have medicinal properties and are used in religious ceremonies in India and world over. They are also an important component of any forest ecosystem with a highly intricate mutual relationship with other biota. Their presence along with other epiphytes is an indication of a healthy ecosystem.

Some of the major countries rich in orchid flora are South and Central America, India, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, South China, Thailand, areas of Indo China, Malaysia, Indonesia, Philippines, New Guinea and Australia. India is home to about 1,600 species of orchids with their main distribution in the North East and Western Ghats.

The first hybrid, calanthe dominiyi, was raised in 1856 by Veitch and Sons. When this was shown to John Lindley, a great taxonomist, he is reported to have exclaimed, “Why you will drive the botanists mad!” Ever since, more than 1,20,000 hybrids have been documented and every year, several hundred are added to the list. The latest in the art of breeding orchids is the variegated leaved phalaenopsis.

One of the most famous natural hybrids from Singapore is Vanda Miss Joaquim which is also its national flower.

India has a handful of individual breeders and some institutions have a few hybrids registered in their names, but the country still has a long way to go when compared to the achievements of many of the South East Asian countries in this arena.

Conferences and shows such as the one held at Singapore in November last year show the shortcomings of orchid breeding, popularisation and cultivation in India compared to the international level. Unless our own hybrids are produced and registered according to the market needs and preferences, it will be a long way before India makes headway into the orchid business.

Orchids are sensitive to even slightest disturbances to their habitats and with the tremendous pressure on natural resources, particularly forest resources, orchids and their habitat are continuously under threat. The major threats for orchid population in nature are habitat destruction and over collection.

Most of the countries including India (and several states in India) have come out with stringent regulations restricting the collection and trade in wild orchids. In addition, the adventure to discover new species of orchids, though welcome, will always open up more avenues for further exploitation of orchid species in their natural habitats. The recent discovery of the world’s first night blooming orchid bulbophyllum nocturnum created a sensation. Discovery and trade of another species phragmepedium kovachii a few years back created quite a sensation.

One of the foremost strategies for conservation of orchids world over is by creating awareness about the need for conserving orchid and its habitat. This is achieved through several active agencies such as Orchid Societies, conducting workshops, awareness camps, meetings and conferences. One such mammoth programme is the World Orchid Conference and show held once in three years. 

The World Orchid Conference Trust, which sponsors the triennial conference and show, was established in 1988 with its headquarters at Bermuda. The trustees are from American Orchid Society, Royal Horticultural Society and Appleby Trust, Bermuda. These conferences take place every three years and the first conference was held in St. Louise, Missouri, USA in 1954. The 19th conference was held in Miami, Florida in 2008 and the 20th was held in Singapore. The 21st is provisionally at Pretoria, South Africa in 2014.

The conference is a forum for international committees such as International Orchid Commission and the orchid specialist group of IUCN of Species Survival Commission to meet.

With the formation of such institutions to monitor and discuss issues related to orchid conservation in its natural habitat, the importance of conservation of orchids as a component of natural ecosystems is further emphasised.

The orchid show at Singapore held in November 2011 was remarkable. The show covered an area of 16,000 sq m, presenting more than 130 species and several hybrids from world over.

Areas of conservation

India is home to many dendrobiums distributed in the North East and the Western Ghats. The potential to make use of the gene pool available is enormous.

There is a need to identify the habitats and conserve them in situ areas such as orchid sanctuaries to focus specifically on orchid conservation. This is apart from the other protected areas already notified for conservation purposes. Setting up of botanical gardens and orchidariums will complement the in situ conservation programmes.

Apart from declaring or notifying certain potential habitats for conservation of orchids through protected areas in India, various communities in the North Eastern parts of India have taken the initiative to declare certain habitats as sacred groves, dedicating certain forest areas for local deities.

These areas will indirectly serve the purpose of conservation. Similarly, communities have taken up the initiative to notify areas rich in flora and fauna to be conserved as community reserves.