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 Plants of Ecuador




 Cattleya - Sobralia - Epidendrum - Oncidium & Odontoglossum - Lepanthes - Pleurothallis & Stelis

Masdevallia & Dracula - Elleanthus - Maxillaria - Phragmipedium - Various Orchids Species




Orchids are very common in Ecuador and some 4000 species are already classified although many more await official recognition. You find them as epiphytes on trees, as lithophytes on rocks or rooted in the soil in the more traditional terrestrial fashion. Orchids grow in all ecosystems and some species range up to 4000m but the majority are found in the humid cloudforests and rainforests of the country. Some are so plentiful as to be considered weeds growing in disturbed areas whereas many you will never face as they grow high up in the crowns of tall tropical trees. But in any case if you love orchids you are in the right country to be able to see and admire them. 


Some of the most widely found genera in the country (beginning from top left) are Lepanthes, where the flower hangs underneath the leaf, Epidendrum, common with many species present, Oncidium, many flowers growing on a long stalk, Phragmipedium, called Lady Slippers because of its flower shape, Dracula, found growing on trees in humid forests and the plentiful Pleurothallis.


Orchids started out as terrestrial plants and half of all species stayed in this proven mode of making a living. Other orchids, especially the tropical ones, became epiphytes or air plants, growing on other plants. As trees grew taller and taller to reach the precious sunrays so other plants moved up on them for the same reasons. Epiphytes also include ferns, lichen, mosses, bromeliads and other flowering plants. Orchids underwent evolutionary changes to be able to survive the move from soil- to airborne plants. They developed specialized roots which can take moisture directly from the air. Food and water was stored in fleshy leaves or pseudobulbs to survive leaner times. Some other orchids embarked on a different evolutionary path losing the ability to photosynthesize. They form a union with mycorrhizals parasitizing other soil fungi. During germination and seedling growth all orchids go through this process.


The profound lip or labellum serves as a landing spot for insects, which are important pollinators. In this picture taken of an epidendrum specie in the geo-botanical reserve of Pululahua a tiny beetle takes advantage of this structure. Different shapes and colors of the labellum and the other petals and sepals, the smell given off by the flower, leaf structures, etc.. attract different pollinators. Many orchids adapted themselves to be pollinated only by one particular species of insects. Birds and other animals also help in this process of pollinating those wonderful flowering plants


One of the most interesting feature of orchids is their intricate interactions with pollinators, mainly insects. Many orchids and animals co-evolved together for mutual benefits. Orchids modified their flowers to attract pollinators. The beautiful shapes, colors and smells of some orchids were not invented to people's benefits but for selfish purposes. Nice smelling orchids attract for instance bees which are main pollinators of orchids (and flowers in general). Whereas foul smelling ones bow to the wishes of flies. White orchids often bloom at night and attract moths, bats and other nocturnal animals. The tubular structures of Elleanthus species offer pollen to hummingbirds. Some developed further special features like closing themselves so pollinators have to exit at the back and thus get in touch more positively with the pollens. Others adapted themselves to only one kind of animal and depend on them alone for propagation.


PSEUDOCOPULATION is a strange word  for a strange phenomenon in  plant - animal relations. Most relationships are beneficial to both but once in a while you find one participant cheating on the other. For example flowerpiercers, tanager birds, drill a hole in the back of flowers and steal the nectar without pollinating the flower. But plants have their tricks too like this Telipogon orchid which grows in the higher cloudforests of the Andes. Its column and petal base resembles a female fly's behind and males rush to copulate with the supposed female. To further enhance the deception, false pheromones are also given off by the orchid. The insect's genes are not passed on but the orchid's ones are. This mode of attraction is found in several other genera but only found in orchids. 


Orchids are adored by flower lovers and many hybrids were created over the years and a booming orchid trade is at hand. South American orchids common in the trade are cattleyas, laelias, encyclia, epidendrums, oncidiums and phragmipediums. One orchid which is used commercially for a different purpose is the vanilla. It originated from Mexico but  is now grown in many other tropical countries for producing that nice vanilla flavor. The essence is produced in the seed pods of those climbing orchids. Orchids are very successful and are with the Asteracea family the largest flower family in the world. But individual orchid species are prone to extinction through habitat destruction. As many species are range restricted, often being endemic to a small area a complete deforestation will also destroy them.

 Plant Classification
Orchids belong to one of the largest family of flowering plants with some 25 000 species worldwide grouped into 880 genera. They grow on all continents except Antarctica and are most plentiful in the tropical regions of the world. They make up the family Orchidaceae in the order of Liliiflorae. They are monocots and considered by many the most advanced flowering plants.
There are five major sub-families recognized:
 Apostasioideae include the most primitive orchids and has only two genera and 16 species.
Cypripedioideae include the slipper-like orchids and have five genera with 130 species worldwide. In Ecuador you find Phragmipedium and Selenipedium.
Orchidoideae are terrestrial orchids with 210 genera and over 3500 species. The most widespread genus in Ecuador is the Habenaria. Most others are Old World species.
Vanilloideae is a subfamily of hemiephytic orchid climbing up on trunks. It has 15 genera with some 180 species. It includes the Vanilla genus.
The most advanced subfamily is Epidendroideae with some 575 genera and over 15 000 species. Most are tropical epiphytes possessing pseudobulbs. Many members are found in Ecuador.
 Orchid Characteristics


 Most epiphytic orchids  have so-called pseudo bulbs at the base of the leaves, where food and water is stored for needy times. Those structures gave the flower also its name, deriving from the Greek word Orchis meaning testicles.

Not all orchids have pseudo bulbs but instead fleshy and succulent leaves which are also used for food and water storage. In some species like masdevallia and pleurothallis leaves abound and flowers seem to grow right out of them.

Some orchids develop air roots, from where a new pedicel and flower starts to grow. Air moisture can be taken up directly through the roots and they do not need any contact with soil.The roots are whitish, grubby and covered by a velamen.

 A very distinct characteristic are their seed pods, where inside innumerous tiny seeds wait for them to burst open and be easily dispersed by wind. 

 Natural History


The oldest fossil pollen of an orchid dates back to the Miocene era, some 15 - 20 million years ago. This suggests an origin of this flower family in the late Cretaceous Era, some 80 - 100 million years ago. The first orchids were all terrestrial and derived their nutrients and water from the soil. Only later did they evolve their epiphytic way of life. Some orchids today still show that interim stage as they are rooted in arboreal soil and plant decays often associated with mosses or lichens. Pseudobulbs which are modified stem structures and aerial roots with velamen were later adaptations to cope with the new environment.
 Biological Speaking


Orchids are determined by their floral characteristics. Flowers grow on a stalk called pedicel which rotates 180 during growth so the mature flower is actually upside down. The flower possesses 3 sepals and 3 petals. The 3 sepals are often similar in color and shape. So are the two lateral petals but the third one however differs from the others and is lobed or cupped. This part is called the lip or labellum and attracts pollinators and serves as a landing platform for insects. The sexual parts, pistils and stamens, are fused together into a structure called a column which is set opposite the lip. But not always are the various parts of the flower so easily observed. Sepals are sometimes fused together and the two petals are very tiny and cannot be easily observed and seem to be absent.

 Evolutionary Thought


Charles Darwin speculated when a he studied an orchid specie called Angraecum sesquipedale from Madagascar that there must exist a moth with a very long proboscis on the island. Only that creature would be able to reach the pollen deep inside the flower structure. At that time he was not taken seriously but twenty years later just such a moth, a hawk moth by the name of Xanthopan morgani was discovered and it was shown that it actually was the needed pollinator.

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