You probably got your orchid from a store or a garden center. But where are orchids from originally? Are they native to one place and exported around the world, or can you find them anywhere?
Where do orchids come from? Orchids are found all around in the world, particularly in Asia and the Americas. Countries that are most famous for their orchids include Japan, Colombia, Mexico China and Brazil. Scientists don’t know where orchids first evolved, but the earliest evidence available is from a species found in the Dominican Republic. Today’s orchids are mostly grown by people rather than harvested from the wild.
The guide below first details the evolutionary origin of orchids, and their current-day range. We’ll also look at each of the countries best known for being home to or celebrating orchids, and what habitats orchids love.
Where Do Orchids Originate From?
Orchids are incredibly popular, and with good reason. They’re among the most beautiful and rewarding plants to keep.
What you may not know, though, is that there are tens of thousands of orchid species found around the world. The current estimate is about 28,000 species, although it’s certain that there are others yet to be discovered, only increasing our wonder at the natural world around us.
But on to the question: it makes sense that since there are so many species, orchids have had to adapt to many different parts of the world. And it’s true: orchids are found across the Americas, Asia, Europe and Africa. Barring Antarctica, there isn’t a continent they don’t call home. That may not sound too impressive, but that puts orchids on par with grasses and ferns for their dominance of the plant kingdom. Indeed, orchids are the second biggest family of flowering plants.
Where Are Orchids First From?
It’s not known exactly when or where orchids are from.
The earliest example we have of orchids is from 15-20 million years ago, a time called the Miocene epoch. Rather than direct evidence, the orchid species was found and categorized in a most unusual way. A bee—yes, a bee—was found trapped in pollen with an unrecognized plant species’ pollen on its wings. This pollen was identified as a that of an orchid, Meliorchid caribea. This evidence was found in the Dominican Republic in the Caribbean.
That being said, it’s not thought that this was the first ever orchid. It’s just the one we have the first evidence for. Through genetic analysis, scientists have estimated that orchids probably first evolved 76 to 84 million years ago in the Late Cretaceous. Back then, the continents hadn’t formed their familiar pattern anyway, so it’s a moot point to argue where they’re originally ‘from’! Unless you answer ‘Pangaea’, that is.
What Country is Known for Orchids?
Orchids aren’t just from one place, but there are lots of places that are known for their orchids—or their love of orchids.
Columbia is home to more orchid species than any other country in the world. It’s for that reason, and the orchid’s natural beauty, that it’s the national flower of Colombia.
Colombia has somewhere in the region of 4270 known orchid species endemic to its rainforests, and that, of course, doesn’t include those yet to be discovered. The reason why Colombia’s ecosystem is so diverse is the Andean Cordillera, a chain of mountains home to dry forests, wet forests, and cloud forests.
If you had to invent a habitat that was perfect for an orchid, it would be a cloud forest. It’s like a rainforest but taken to the extreme. It’s like a regular rainforest, in that it has an absolute abundance of greenery. But unlike your average rainforest like the Brazilian Amazon, a cloud forest is very high above sea level. While a normal rainforest is humid enough for any orchid, cloud forests are so high up and so humid that the humidity forms real, actual clouds. It’s like a thick impenetrable and permanent fog. In other words, it’s exactly what orchids love (as wild orchids get most of their water from the humid air, rather than rain). It’s for this reason that the Nariño department in western Colombia hold the record for the place with the highest number of epiphyte diversity in the world (epiphytes being plants, like orchids, that live on the sides of trees).
The specific flower that’s Colombia’s national flower is a Cattleya: Cattleya trianae, also known as the Christmas orchid. It’s native to Colombia, and occurs in wet lowlands and cloud forests. It’s supposedly the Colombian national flower because of its combination of the colors blue, yellow and red (just like the Colombian flag). It was even named after a prominent Colombian botanist, Jose Jeronimo Triana.
Are Orchids from Japan?
We don’t know whether orchids originated in Japan all those millions of years ago. What we do know, though, is that Japan has taken to orchids in ways that no other country has.
Japan’s obsession with orchids dates back a long, long time… Not quite to the Cretaceous, though. It was in the 18th century when Japan’s obsession with orchids began. Shogun Tokugawa Ienari—the shogun being the military dictator who ruled in place of the Emperor at the time—discovered the joy of growing orchids just like we did. In particular, he loved the Neofinetia falcata, a kind of orchid that grows on Japan’s many mountains. Part of the appeal of its flowers is that they have a delightful scent (supposedly somewhere between vanilla and coconut). But beyond that, they’re irregularly beautiful like any orchid, something that appealed to Japanese taste at the time (like bonsai trees).
With the shogun’s position influencing not just the politics but the culture of Japan, his obsession caught on like wildfire. These orchids were originally called ‘furan’, meaning ‘wind orchid’, but once they became fashionable they were instead called ‘fuukiran’, meaning ‘orchid of wealth and nobility’. Particularly beautiful ones were given as gifts to the shogun by anybody who wanted to impress him, and their potting, pruning and care became an art form. They were so highly prized that visitors to a home could only look at them if they covered their mouths with calligraphy paper, to shield the flowers from their breath. They are still found today in Japan, as well as China and Korea, along with many other species.
Orchids are still very popular in Japan today, especially as gifts. In the high-flying 1980s, a treend began of offering orchids as good-luck or celebration gifts, especially in the context of business. According to the Japan Times:
“Pots of the exotic flowers, which often sell for about ¥20,000 ($176), will be there in a newly appointed president’s office, at the entrance of a company that just finished its initial public offering, and in the lobby of an investment fund that hit, say, ¥100 billion in assets.”
You’ll frequently see them in smaller establishments too, whether because the company welcomed a new member, or a business opened or reopened.
Are Orchids from Hawai’i?
Hawaii is a tropical paradise. So, you’d think that it must be home to hundreds upon hundreds of fascinating orchid species. The word keiki, meaning a baby orchid, even comes from the Hawai’ian word for ‘child’. So would it surprise you to learn that Hawaii can only boast three native orchid species?
These species are Anoectochilus sandvicensis, Liparis hawaiensis and Peristylus holochila. Despite Hawaii having lots of humid forested areas that orchids typically love, each of these species prefers living in the ground.
The biodiversity of Hawai’i is a very interesting subject. The Hawai’ian islands are new compared to other landmasses, only dating back to about 5 million years ago—and that’s just Kauai. The other islands aren’t even as old as that, with Oahu dating to about 3 million years, Molokai and Lanai to about 1.5 million years, and Maui maybe not even 1 million years old. That’s obviously a long time in ‘human years’, but other landmasses have been above sea level for hundreds of millions of years. And since Hawai’i is so isolated, that means:
a) Plants and animals have a hard time getting there, and
b) Any that do get there will grow and evolve in isolation from the rest of the world.
Are There Orchids in the U.S.?
There are plenty of orchid species in the U.S. You may not find the species that are commonly sold in stores like phals or cymbidiums, but if anything, that makes their appeal even greater (for me, anyway). There’s a total of somewhere around 208 species, divided into 70 different small families. They’re highly regional: while a few are found across the country, most are highly localized, found in only one specific county or state.
The most common wild orchids in North America are lady’s slipper orchids. There are lots of lady’s slipper species, and they’re all part of the Cypripedium genus. You can find it all across the U.S., unlike most other species, as well as in Canada, Europe, Asia and Japan… It’s almost everywhere! They have a characteristic yellow slipper-shaped pouch, which is how they got their name. They can take ten years to reach maturity and flower for the first time.
Besides lady’s slipper orchids, there are lady’s tresses, which you may not recognize as an orchid to begin with. It’s tall and has flowers running from top to bottom, giving the overall appearance of braids. Another kind in the U.S. is the fringed orchid, which comes in all sorts of colors; it has long, thin hairs on its flowers that look a little like the teeth on a Venus fly trap.
You can go almost anywhere in the U.S. and find orchids. There are lots in Florida and its surrounding states, as that part of the world is so warm and humid. But they can be found in forested areas, near the coast, on mountains or on plains, too. So anywhere you choose to hike, there’s probably an orchid waiting there for you!
Are There Orchids in Europe?
There aren’t as many orchids in Europe as there are on other continents. There are perhaps 500 species, whereas other continents have tens of thousands. Probably the most common is, again, the lady’s slipper. There are lots of lady’s slipper species, so these aren’t the exact same ones as you’ll find in North America, but they look broadly the same.
All of the orchids in Europe are terrestrial. That means they grow in soil rather than on the side of trees, like orchids in the rainforest do. It isn’t humid or wet enough in Europe for epiphytic orchids to have much success (and there certainly aren’t any rainforests). These orchids survive by having a short growing season of just 3-4 months of the year. When the flowers shrivel and die, the orchid survives by using its underground root/tuber system for water and nutrients, and flowers again the next year. They grow and bloom when there’s enough moisture in the soil to support growth of both its flowers, and subsequently, its seeds.
Like orchids elsewhere, European orchids often have very specific growing conditions that they demand, else they won’t grow. One example is the swamp orchid, Dactylorhiza incarnata. It will only grow in swampy areas where the subsoil water contains lots of lime (ground up limestone rock). If you want to go for a hike and find orchids in any European country, it will be more difficult than doing so elsewhere.
What Habitats Do Orchids Like?
Orchids are widely known as a tropical plant, and it’s true: most orchid species like the rainforest.
The rainforest is a fascinating habitat. It’s uniquely warm, humid and rainy in a way that nowhere else is on earth. This allows all sorts of species to flourish there, not just orchids. It’s thought that rainforests are home to anywhere between 3 and 50 million species. The reason nobody’s sure is that they’re so difficult to access.
You can see how most orchids have adapted to the rainforest by thinking about how to care for them. They like high humidity (check), room temperature or higher (check), indirect sunlight (check—the rainforest canopy is always in the way!) and don’t like to sit in water (check—they get their water from the humid air, for the most part). Phalaenopsis orchids, the most common household species, is a prime example of this adaptation to a rainforest setting. It’s because orchids like rainforests so much that most species come from rainforest biomes like in central America and the Amazon, or tropical Africa and Asia.
While most species of orchid are found in these places, that doesn’t mean that all species are. Other orchids enjoy coastal areas, mountainsides, drier and colder forests, and even steppe or plain conditions.
Where Is MY Orchid From?
99% of the orchids sold today are grown in big warehouses rather than harvested from the wild. The trade in orchids has gotten so big that it would be entirely unsustainable to source every single indoor orchid from a wild location. These warehouses simulate an orchid’s wild habitat well: rather than getting watered, the air is kept humid and the orchids sprayed frequently to encourage growth. You can typically see that an orchid has been cared for well at this stage in its life: if you buy an orchid from a store, you can often see that its first few leaves are much smaller than its topmost ones, indicating that it was grown from a small keiki quite quickly.
That being said, there is still a black market trade in wild orchids. It’s not clear how big this trade is, because by its nature, the black market is secretive. But it seems that in some parts of the world at least, this trade continues, and puts enormous pressure on the wild orchid population.