The Tenuous Life of Orchids

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In the cloud forest there is a constant recycling of plant material, more so than in most plant communities. A visiting botanist recently commented that old growth trees in cloud forest are rarely older than 200-250 years. The year round high moisture content results that trees are often in varying degrees of decomposition of their heart woods, and we have witnessed in the past few years some giant patriarchs falling bringing with them neighboring trees. The resultant light gap starts succession anew with pioneer species rapidly closing the gap within a few years. Primary forest is therefore somewhat messy here, with varying stages of succession happening all at once. Contrast this to an old growth Sequoia grove in the Sierras where trees thousands of years old form stable primary forests sometime for centuries before an old growth tree falls.

Orchids and other epiphytes in cloud forests have quite the tenuous life growing as they do on the inherently unstable structures of tree branches and tree trunks. How often on our walks through the forest do we come across fallen trees or branches draped and loaded with bromeliads and orchids. Here they lie in the darkness of the forest floor doomed to perish with the low light intensities insufficient to maintain their growth and reproduction. We often come to the rescue and give these plants a second chance, bringing back to our greenhouse fallen epiphytes and potting them or attaching them to the trees of our common area. In the case of orchids we often don’t know what species they belong to until the flower. Even then we often need help in identifying them. Here are two examples of orchids that we rescued and that have now flowered, revealing their identities. There is something rewarding about giving these plants a second chance to mature and reproduce.

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