Orchids in Spring Gardens

They might be the show-ponies of the plant world but there's more to an orchid than just a pretty face.

It's the unusual nature of orchids that makes them so attractive, says President of the NSW Orchid Society, Geoff Fulcher.

"There is a huge variety of them, there is something like 3,000 species of orchids (in the world)," he says.

While orchids are usually enjoyed for their flowers, they have a number of other uses.

The most common commercial use for orchids is vanilla - yes, the prized and expensive vanilla pod grows on an orchid. There are 60 different varieties of vanilla orchid but the one used for commercial purposes is Vanilla planifolia.

The pods take eight or nine months to develop and then need to be sweated and dried repeatedly for months before they become the spice we see in the supermarket.

Certain orchid tubers are also used in various dishes around the world, including ice cream, Fulcher says.

"The tubers are ground up with other ingredients and made into an ice cream (called Salep)," he says.

"It is very popular in Turkey ... (it) is very elastic, stretched almost like a dough, it's very nice."

Various parts of orchids are also used in some traditional medicines.

But orchids are mostly just used for decoration.

They are a popular choice for bridal bouquets, because the flowers are long lasting, and they make perfect pot plants, and the phalaenopsis orchid holds the position of most popular pot plant in the world.

Upside-down orchids, which flower through the base of the plant, are also a popular choice.

While most orchids have a pleasant perfume there are some you would want to plant as far down the backyard as possible.

These varieties of orchids are pollinated by flies and smell like a dead animal.

"People are struck by the bad smelling ones because you don't expect a flower to have an awful smell," Fulcher says.

"Everything is designed for pollination, they don't do what they do for us."

Growing orchids can be a fine art, and the best way to learn about growing orchids is to join an orchid society and learn from the other members, Fulcher says.

"You need to look at what part of the world (the orchid) comes from, it's like any other plant. You don't try growing tropical plants in a Melbourne backyard or in Tasmania."

And it's not all about keeping orchids hot, some grow in mountainous climates and need to be kept in cold houses and air conditioned.

With the right care, many orchids will flower for months, starting in winter or early spring.

The opulence of tropical orchids will be on display at the Tropical Centre at Sydney's Royal Botanic Gardens this weekend from July 3.

Visitors will be able to see some of the more weird and wonderful orchid varieties from the sweet smelling white Coelogynes to the on-the-nose Bulbophylums which smells like rotting meat.

The orchid show also will give growers the opportunity to talk to specialists who will give demonstrations and provide advice on temperature, humidity, ventilation, light, watering, and soil.


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