Are Orchids Parasites? – Debunking The Age-Old Myth

If you love stunningly hued flora that brightens any location, outdoor, or indoor, you ought to check out the orchid family. These exotic beauties are the largest flowering species to ever grace the face of the Earth, with over thirty thousand varieties plus more than two-hundred thousand hybrids. These plants thrive in any place that enjoys equatorial climates. But they can basically call any location home as long as their needs are met. This is because most of them are naturally found in tropical forests, semi-deserts, on the shorelines, as well as the tundra.

Over an extended period, there has been an ongoing debate whether these charms are parasitic or not. Well, before we get to that conclusion, you first have to understand the characteristics of a parasitic plant and compare the same to orchids.  

Traits of parasitic flora as compared to orchids

A parasite, simply put, is an organism that invades another body and interferes with its normal functioning, be it chemically or physically.

They need a host plant 

Of all characteristics of a parasitic plant, this one is the most distinct. Parasitic plants depend entirely on other plants for all their needs – both nutritional and security. They infest the host plant, latch on them, extract water, nutrients, and even their saps. Their sole survival depends on the host, such that in the event the host dies, it dies too or it has to find another host. Others have been known to completely suck the life out of their host and kill them eventually.

Some species of orchid grow on host plants, but contrary to the typical parasitic plants, they do not harm the host in any way. Their survival is entirely on their own such that if the host plant dies, they may continue to grow if they still have a surface to hold on to. They will only die if they are physically affected or lack the nutritional needs from their surroundings, never at the cost of another plant.

They have specialized roots while orchids don’t

Parasitic plants have specialized roots called haustoria that penetrate the host plant’s vascular tissue to obtain their food and water. Besides siphoning food and water, these structures also anchor the plant firmly on the host plant. Orchids, on the other hand, have typical root systems that anchor on the plant or the soil. The air roots do not penetrate the host’s skin and pose no harm whatsoever. They instead dangle freely to collect water from the atmosphere from rain and water droplets from the vegetation above them.

Some parasite plants lack leaves

The fully blown parasitic plants lack leaves, as they do not make their food via photosynthesis. They instead depend wholly on the host plant to feed and stay alive. By using their specialized invasive roots, they dig into the host’s food supply and feast on it indefinitely.

Considering orchids make their own supply of food, they must have leaves. As a matter of fact, their growing cycle works between the growth of new leaves and roots to give rise to fresh blooms. Them having leaves is a necessity for the continuation of plant life. This is because new leaves grow from the middle of existing leaves. Hence, the lack of them results in the death of the orchid. Because of that, orchids are exempted from being categorized as parasites.

Parasitic plants injure the host plant

Because a parasite plant invades the host plant and interrupts its anatomy, the host is bound to suffer. First of all, some parts of the host will lack their nutrients and water supply, meaning they will start to deteriorate. This interruption will then lead to the stressing of these parts, which results in stunted growth or lack of the development of flowers and fruits. Thirdly the entry points to the roots may leave room for the admission of toxic substances that may cause viral, fungal, or bacterial infestations.

Well, some orchids indeed need host plants, but they do not invade them in any way. Both the host and the orchid thrive in the same environment through commensalism. Commensalism is a kind of symbiotic relationship where one of the organisms receive benefits, and the other is neither helped nor harmed. In this case, the host offers the orchid habitat and is not damaged in any way as a parasite plant would.

How orchids grow

These beautiful blooming plants exhibit different growth habits, under which one of them may have attributed to the question “Are orchids parasites?”

Orchid’s growth habits are classified in two main ways: where and how they grow. The preferred location of anchorage is categorized into two patterns as well; epiphytes and terrestrials. And how they grow is also classified in two distinct ways; monopodial and sympodial.

Epiphyte orchids 

Most of the cultivated orchids are epiphytes meaning they grow on trees and rocks as opposed to the ground. And their roots are exposed to the air where they draw their moisture and nutrients. They mostly grow between branches or rock surfaces where the organic matter may have accumulated over some time. And they do thrive in the warm, humid climates away from direct sunlight. Well, because of their nature of growing on other plants, one may conclude that they are parasites, which is not the case. These orchids make their food through photosynthesis using sunlight and moisture from their surrounding air. The only rely on them for a home, anchorage, and protection.

Terrestrial Orchids

Terrestrial orchids grow in the ground soil like most plants and yet again do not interfere with the growth of the neighboring crops. These terrestrial species enjoy being anchored in the land where they get all the nourishment they need. Some, however, need the cold climates to bloom and become dormant when winter hits.

Monopodial Orchids

Monopodial orchids grow upwards to form one single upright stem with the leaves growing side by side. The flowers and root stems of these types of orchids emerge at the nodes above each leave. A perfect example of this type of orchids is the Singapore orchid, also known as the Vanda. These specific species grow on trees with their roots hovering freely in the air or wind around the tree, not affecting the tree in any way.

Sympodial Orchids

The sympodial orchids, on the other hand, grow sideways. The connecting stem, also known as the rhizome, grows horizontally and shoots up branches that grow perpendicular to the rhizome. These shoots have swollen bottoms known as pseudobulbs, which are the plant’s water and nutrient storage sites during drought. For this reason, they do not depend on other plants to live on. The Cattleya is an example of a sympodial orchid.

 

Taking care of homegrown orchids

Well, it is impossible to give a definitive guide of taking care of all the 30,000 species considering the numbers. However, the general tips of the conditions they need to prosper are as follows;

  1. Provide ample lighting specific to the species of orchid.
  2. Follow a watering schedule according to the kind you are growing.
  3. Provide a well-drained, well-ventilated, well-fertilized growing medium.
  4. Provide a relatively high humidity.

Conclusion

As you have seen, the orchids family of plants may be falsely categorized as a parasite because of some of its growing habits. However, this is not the case, because a more in-depth analysis as the one above has been given. It is evident that they fend for themselves in terms of food and water but may need assistance in the anchorage department. Additionally, their growth does not affect the surrounding plants in any way. For those reasons, the answer to “Are orchids parasites?” is a firm NO. 

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