Articles on orchids

Articles on orchids

Articles on orchids

Russian version has been published in the Orchid Planet magazine #27 (2012)


Miguel Ángel Lozano1, 2 and Rebeca Menchaca2

1 Maestría en Ecología Tropical. Centro de Investigaciones Tropicales. Universidad Veracruzana. Xalapa, Veracruz. México. miguel_orq@hotmail.com

2 Orquidario Universitario. Centro de Investigaciones Tropicales. Universidad Veracruzana. Xalapa, Veracruz. México.


Orchids among cultures have attracted people around the world since they have been considered to be more beautiful than any other type of flower (1). Their aesthetic features makes them highly appreciated as ornamental flowers, this type of attributes offer not only flowers expressed in poetical shapes or bright colors, but also some elements of attractive fragrances (2). In the case of Mexico, orchids have been an important resource for its people. For example, since Prehispanic time, the vanilla bean was used as an ingredient for the original chocolate drink recipe, a legacy that even in today's families is kept very popular. Unfortunately, orchids face serious problems such as overexploitation, deforestation and reproductive barriers which pose a serious threat to the conservation of these species. Under these circumstances, the Orquidario Universitario at the Universidad Veracruzana is developing a research program encompassing a wide range of areas including work with traditional growers and investigation with in vitro culture techniques.


The Orchidaceae family is one of the biggest families in the Plantae kingdom with an estimated number between 20,000 to 35,000 species (3, 4, and 1). In Mexico, 164 genera and more than 1,200 species can be found (1). Many of these orchids, as in other parts of the world, are highly appreciated by Mexicans who have adopted them in many horticultural, social and cultural practices. For example, historical records show that since Prehispanic times the study of orchids led to a significant development of knowledge regarding their characteristics, healing properties and compilation of local uses (1). One of the oldest records, that dates back to the XVth century, reveals the use of vanilla in Mexico. Nevertheless, vanilla was not the only orchid of utilitarian nature amongst the ancient Mexican cultures, there were registered other species of orchids that included: Prosthechea concolor, Vanilla planifolia, Prosthechea vitellina, Bletia jucunda, Laelia speciosa and Stanhopea hernandezii (Fig. 1) (1).

Figure 1. Some orchids used by Mexican cultures: Prosthechea concolor (a), Vanilla planifolia (b), Prosthechea vitellina (c), Bletia jucunda (d), Laelia speciosa (e) and Stanhopea hernandezii (f) (5).

Before the Spanish arrived in Mexico, orchids were used mainly as a type of adhesive susbtance resembling glue. This glue-alike was obtained from the pseudobulbs of the species of the genera Laelia, Prosthechea and Bletia (1). Species included in this list were (Fig. 2): Prosthechea pastori, P. citrina and Laelia autumnalis. This fabricated adhesive had many important uses. For example, the glue substance obtained from Laelia eyermeniana y Catasetum integerrimum was used to bond musical instruments (1). On the other hand, one of the most exquisite expressions of ancient Mexican cultures also used orchid glue. Feather art was produced by special artisans who created magnificent handicrafts with hummingbirds and quetzal feathers (Fig. 3). 

Figure 2. Some species from which glue was obtained: Prosthechea pastori (a), P. citrine (b), Laelia autumnalis (c), L. eyermeniana (d) and Catasetum integerrimum (e) (5).






Figure 3. Feather art in Mexico (6)

Vanilla was another important orchid for many ancient Mexican cultures. Even before the Spanish arrived to the continent, local people had already known and used vanilla traditionally. Its uses were varied: as currency for daily trades, for meal flavoring and as an aphrodisiac herb (7). Today, the vanilla plant (Fig. 4) is one of the orchids with more names in different Indigenous languages, e.g.: xanat, shanat, caxixánath (Totonaco, Veracruz), tlilxóchitl (Nahuátl antiguo), kuoley gm (Chinanteco, Oaxaca), zizbic (Maya, Yucatán), nashú-xicha (Masateco), and juju (Zoque) (8).



Figure 4. Vanilla plant or tlilxóchitl (Nahuátl: a Mexican dialect) (9)

For Mexican cultures the vanilla plant was so important that as part of their traditions, a legend was conceptualized about how vanilla was originated. The legend refers to a love story: “a princess and a soldier whose love was prohibited. Under this restriction, they decided to run away but were caught by the priest community who witnessed their escape. As part of their penalty sentence, they were killed for this impropriety. At the place where they were sacrificed, it’s said that a tree grew up and beside it a beautiful vine started to surround it, representing the love of the princess and the soldier. From the vine, an orchid with green flowers and aromatic fruits came out”. It was this representation of an unconsummated relationship that portrayed how vanilla was originated.

Since 1767 at the end of the colonial period, vanilla was exported to the world from Papantla through the Port of Veracruz (1). By 1942 around 10,000 people were producing vanilla at the north of Veracruz State (10). The large production of vanilla in a tiny geographical area made Papantla earn the name of “the city that perfumed the world” (Fig. 5). Now it can be said that vanilla is a gastronomical legacy from Mexico to the world (7).


Figure 5. Vanilla beans during the curing process in the XVIIIth century at Papantla, Veracruz, Mex. (11), also known as “the city that perfumed the world”.

On the other hand, orchids also played an important place in the traditional medicine practice. The species used for this purposes constitute a group integrated by 30 genera and 57 species; just in the case of Veracruz state, 36 species have been acknowledged for their medicinal properties used in different types of treatments (12). Some of these species include (Fig. 6): Chysis bractescens (a), Epidendrum flexuosum (b), Laelia anceps (c), Myrmecophila grandiflora (d), Prosthechea citrina (e), Sobralia macrantha (f) and Stanhopea tigrina (g) (12).

Figure 6. Some orchids species used for medical treatment (5).

Nowadays in Mexico, orchids still have a vast importance to society. Throughout the country they are used in religious celebrations, as exclusive collection items and as industrial crops (vanilla). Celebrations like the famous Day of the Dead, Corpus Christi and other regional celebrations use orchids to decorate houses, churches and public places (Fig. 7).


Figure 7. Orchids used in the celebration of the “Day of Dead” in Mexico (13).

As many other plants in Mexico and around the world, orchids are considered endangered species. Habitat destruction is only one part of the problem. In regions of Mexico orchid species that grow in the forest are subject to human pressure for the following reason. Interested in plants, many people collect wild orchids to bring and grow them on nearby trees in their backyards. Some species, for example the ones that belong to the genus Laelia, are on the verge of extinction due to selective gathering to supply plants for these demands and to other orchid growers (14).

However, the conservation of species, even of those now endangered, is not a difficult task. First, it has to be recognized the importance of ex situ conservation activities and the part that commercial growers can play in the implementation of these type of strategies. For instance, Laelia gouldiana is an orchid that has never been found in the wild, yet for many decades peasants in Hidalgo State have been collecting and maintaining the species through local cultivation; this action has made possible for the species to be known at present (14).

At this point, it’s evident the important role that small growers can play at indigenous communities in contribution to the conservation of orchids. As part of this conservation strategy, all cultural and social issues must be preserved equally. The ancient knowledge about orchids is a valuable item that must be communicated and revealed to today’s society. Therefore, it is fundamental that local communities preserve their culture and knowledge about orchids in order to leave a lifetime legacy.

Today, an orchid research and conservation program is being undertaken at the Orquidario Universitario (Fig. 9) in Xalapa, Veracruz, Mexico. As part of this program, a group of scientists is working with indigenous communities from Veracruz and Oaxaca focusing on rescuing and fostering local knowledge about orchids. Also, we are culturing endangered orchids through in vitro techniques. This procedure provides a high number of plantlets which in turn can be cultivated by small traditional growers, securing in some extent the reduction of wild plant extraction.

Figure 9. Orquidario Universitario (15).





We would like to acknowledge the financial support of the Consejo Nacional de Ciencia y Tecnologia (CONACyT) for our projects and in consequence for believing in this type of projects aimed at the conservation of Mexican orchids. We thank to Dr. Valentina Martínez, for the suggestions and corrections of the English text.



1.- Hágsater, E., M.A. Soto Arenas, G.A. Salazar Chávez, R. Jiménez Machorro, M.A. López Rosas y R.L. Dressler. Las orquídeas de México. Instituto Chinoín. México. 2005. pp. 304.

2.- García P., M. del R. and Peña, M. Uses of orchids in Mexico from precolumbian times to the present. In, Hagsater, E. (Ed.). Revista Orquídea. Asociación Mexicana de Orquideología. 1981. 8(1): 59-75.

3.- Freuler, M.J. Orquídeas (1a ed.). Albatros. Argentina. 2007. pp.112

4.- Jezek, Zdenek. La enciclopedia de las orquídeas. Libsa. España. 2005. pp. 304

5.- Soto A., M.A., E. Hágsater, R. Jiménez Machorro, G.A. Salazar Chávez, R. Solano Gómez, R. Flores Gonzales e I. Ruiz Contreras. Las orquídeas de México. Catalogo digital. Disco interactivo multimedia. Win-Mac. Herbario AMO, Instituto Chinoin, A.C. México. 2007.

6.- Alvares, R. 2011. El Munal invita al taller “El rescate del arte plumario”.

7.- Menchaca G., R. y D. Moreno. Vanilla planifolia Andrews. In: A. Gómez, T. Krömer y R. Castro (ed.). Atlas de la flora de Veracruz. Un patrimonio natural en peligro. Comisión del Estado de Veracruz para la Conmemoración del Bicentenario de la Independencia Nacional y del Centenario de la Revolución Mexicana. Gobierno del Estado. Universidad Veracruzana. México. 2010.

8.- Soto A., M.A. y R.L. Dressler. A revision of the mexican and central american species of Vanilla Plumier ex Miller with a characterization of their ITS region of the nuclear ribosomal DNA. Lankesteriana. 2010. 9(3), pp. 285-354.

9.- Lozano R., M.A. Foto tomada el 17 de mayo. Vainillal en Papantla Veracruz, México. 2011.

10.- Soto A., M.A. Filogeografía y recursos genéticos de las vainillas de México. Comisión Nacional para el Conocimiento y Uso de la Biodiversidad (CONABIO), México. 1999.

11. - Archivo general del estado de Veracruz. N/D.

12.- Madrigal R., S. Usos complementarios al ornamental de las orquídeas del estado de Veracruz, México. Tesis de licenciatura. Facultad de Agronomía, Universidad Autónoma de Chapingo. Huatusco, Ver., Méx. 2008. pp. 116

13.- Lozano R., M.A. Foto tomada el 29 de noviembre. Orquidario Universitario del Centro de Investigaciones Tropicales, Universidad Veracruzana. 2010.

14.- Halbinger, F. and M.A. Soto. Laelias of Mexico. Herbario de la AMO. 1997. pp. 160.

15.- Lozano R., M.A. Foto tomada el 17 de mayo. Orquidario Universitario del Centro de Investigaciones Tropicales, Universidad Veracruzana. 2010.

© 2007 «Orchid Planet».

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