How Orchids Work

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Unlike most flowers, orchids combine male and female sex organs on one column. (c) 2015 HowStuffWorks

If exotic floral flair is what you're after, orchids are the way to go. With more than 25,000 species spanning about 80 million years in existence, orchids are arguably one of the most beautiful, even intelligent, families of flowering plants in existence [source: Pollan]. Indeed, the ability of these perennials to adapt and evolve has made them surprisingly hardy for such a seemingly delicate bloom, with a major presence on every continent except for Antarctica (sorry, penguins!) Although they do grow and thrive in cold climates, the most brilliant varieties of orchids prefer a more tropical setting like South or Central America.

Orchids by their very makeup have bilateral symmetry, meaning that one side of a flower is a mirror image of the other, just like a human face. People appreciate those clean lines of symmetry, making them more likely to admire the beauty of the bloom [source: Kramer].

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A male coppery-headed emerald hummingbird feeds at orchid flowers in the Monteverde Cloud Forest in Cost Rica.
© Michael & Patricia Fogden/CORBIS

Describing the typical orchid is kind of like describing a "normal" human being. Their characteristics vary so widely across the family that they're impossible to pigeonhole. Size options alone make them unique: They range from as tiny as a pin to as large as a dinner plate! Looking for a specific color? Pick a shade, any shade — there's an orchid species somewhere in that hue. Possible shapes are endless. Some orchids bear striking resemblances to animals like monkeys, lions, doves and ducks!

Anatomically speaking, however, a typical orchid consists of a reproductive column, three petals placed in a whorl and three sepals (the usually green, leafy parts of the flower that enclose the bud). One of the petals, known as the labellum or lip, is extra fancy in appearance because its purpose is to entice insects to visit and encourage pollination. In particular, the orchid column is innovative because it combines both female and male sex organs within a tube-shaped edifice, rather than these organs existing separately, as is the case with most other types of flowers [sources: Landscape-and-garden, AMNH, Smithsonian Gardens].

Beautiful, smart and diverse? No wonder orchids are incredibly popular!