Orchids – huge flowering diversity
Published on: Saturday, November 29, 2014

ORCHID live in all continents of the world except Antarctica. They are found in deserts, in grasslands, in swamps, in the mountains or in the lowland rain forests. Their flowers range in size from little more than a pin-head to huge inflorescences more than a metre in length. They live as epiphytes in the tops of the trees, as small plants in the leaf litter on the forest floor or as tall stems coming up from the ground. Some species have lost their leaves entirely, photosynthesising by their roots, others exist on the decaying leaves and twigs of the forest floor as mushrooms do, and some have even gone underground!

Largest Family of Flowering Plants in the World!

There is no other family of flowering plants that has such a huge diversity in its flowers and lifestyle and worldwide there are more than twenty-five thousand species of orchids – the largest family of flowering plants in the whole world!

World Hotspot of Diversity

About 1,700 wild orchids are found on the island of Borneo. One thousand three hundred of these are found in Sabah and almost 900 of those species live on Mt. Kinabalu. This makes the Kinabalu Park, covering 754 sq kms, one of the richest places for orchid diversity, per unit area, in the entire world!

To give these figures some perspective, the whole of the continent of Europe, (an area of almost 9 million sq. kms, and more than 100 times the size of Sabah), has fewer orchids, (875), than are found in the Kinabalu Park alone! No wonder Mt Kinabalu is one of the top hotspots for plant diversity, (not just orchids), on this planet!

Over 100 New Species of Orchids in Borneo!

What’s more, over one hundred NEW species of orchids, just for Borneo, have been discovered and described within the last ten years!

Borneo Orchid Society

Twenty years ago, the Borneo Orchid Society was formed by a group of enthusiasts keen to know more about Borneo’s orchids and keen to encourage more interest in this group of wonderful plants that have driven men almost mad with desire!

They decided that one of the ways in which they could this was to hold regular orchid shows. Orchid shows cost money however, and, as it happens, the last show was in 2010.

This year though, there is another show, so if you didn’t get the chance to see it on Friday or Saturday, make the time to pop along to the KK Community Hall behind the Sabah Tourism office for a lovely display of colour and form – this is the last day!

Insect Pollinators Evolved with the Orchids

Orchids are amazing not just for the number of species, but for the variety of shape and form in their flowers.

Think of flower like that of a Hibiscus, with five petals that are all the same. Most flowers have this sort of pattern – though the number of petals may vary, they are usually all alike – but in orchids, one petal is very different, forming a landing platform for insect pollinators.

This petal is called the lip. Orchids often have very specific pollinators – some are pollinated by only one particular species of bee, fly or moth, which has evolved with the orchid, and the amazing diversity in shape that orchids exhibit is largely a result of this continuous evolution.

Largest Orchid Plant in the World !

I have written several articles about Sabah’s wonderful orchids in the past – including some world record-breakers such as the largest orchid plant in the world, Grammatophyllum speciosum.

This is, of course, the fantastic Tiger or Snake orchid with its magnificent inflorescences of tawny-spotted brown and yellow flowers – thus the name ‘Tiger”. The alternative, “Snake”, comes from the long, sinuous leaf and flower stalks.

Longest Leaf & Longest Flower

The orchid with the longest leaf in the world is the peculiar Rat-tailed orchid, (Paraphalaenopsis labukensis), and the longest-petalled orchid flower, (Paphiopedilum sanderianum), belongs to one of the most bizarre species – a Slipper orchid found, not in Sabah, but in Sarawak, with two narrow petals that hang down, as much as a metre, from the damp mossy cliffs on which the plants grow – but there are many others, and though what you see in Orchid Show competitions are mainly man-made hybrids there are plenty of wonderful species in the landscape displays.

Man-made hybrids are crosses between two species or between two other hybrids created by man. All hybrids are recorded in an international registry, which now contains over 200,000 registered hybrids worldwide! Natural hybrids occasionally occur in the wild as well.

Hybrids are usually more colourful and flamboyant than the species, but to me they have lost some of the delicate charm that many wild species have. They may not be so flamboyant, and you may have to look more closely at the smaller flowers, but there are some wild species that are just as beautiful as the hybrids and certainly more bizarre.

Some of Sabah’s wild species are illustrated here, but Sabah’s several wild orchid centres – the Mountain Garden at Kinabalu Park HQ; Poring Hot Springs sub-station of the Kinabalu Park, the Botanical Garden at Tawau Hills Park, the Rainforest Discovery Garden at Sepilok near Sandakan and Kipandi Park in the Crocker Range (only 45 minutes drive from Kota Kinabalu), are the best places to go if you want to see more, and, of course, the Agricultural Park at Tenom, with its collections of both wild and hybrid orchids.





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