The article below was published in The Star
newspaper on 24 June 2003.
ORCHIDS - WILD BEAUTIES
by Rick Gregory
IN the kingdom of flowering plants, orchids rule the
emerald Earth. Of the over 25,000 species found
worldwide, Malaysia is home to some 850 species in
the peninsula and another 2,500 in Sabah and
To obtain such abundance, orchids are opportunists
that grow in high altitudes and high in the forest
canopy, along the coastal plain and among rocky
ravines, with most either creeping or climbing on
sturdy tree trunks and intertwined among long
branches. A few even survive on limestone rocks and
in the moist shade of the jungle floor.
Paphiopedilum niveum (Slipper orchid) is a
terrestrial orchid peculiar to the northern region
The greatest variety of wild orchids are in the
hills and mountains. Taman Negara and Cameron
Highlands in Pahang are two of the better-known
localities for observing orchids but real orchid
admirers should visit Mount Kinabalu in Sabah.
Orchids account for a quarter of all flowering
plants on the mountain, totalling a staggering 1,200
Unique and uncanny
Wild orchid plants are usually much smaller than
their commercially-grown hybrid counterparts. To
appreciate the full beauty and not just the blooms
of these jungle ornaments, it will be good to
understand a little ecology and evolution.
Most Malaysian orchids are epiphytes – plants that
grow on others for physical support
without harming the host. Some grow on the ground
and a limited few thrive on decaying
Wild orchids are an amazing artistic display. The
spectacular array of colours, patterns and
sizes has evolved over millennia to make them more
attractive to small insect pollinators and
to take advantage of specific habitats.
The flower structure of orchids gives them their
character. Some are tiny and singular; others
are elongated with numerous blossoms. The tiger
orchid, the world’s largest at up to 3m, is a
random but magnificent sight of hundreds of hefty
yellowish flowers pockmarked with maroon blots.
A beautiful orchid, most commonly found in the
highland forests of Peninsular Malaysia.
In other species, the flowers are delicate little
blooms less than 1cm wide.
Orchids can last for weeks or just a few hours. One
species opens its flowers at dawn and by noon,
shrivels away. Orchids are also noted for their
odorous offerings. Did you know that the
sweet-scented smell of vanilla is actually an
Wild orchids also showcase a spectrum of leaf
designs. One of the most prized species is the jewel
orchid, a plant with broad flamboyant leaves. The
elephant ear orchid has thick leaves, others have
pleated palm-like leaves or narrow, leathery leaves,
while some species have no leaves at all.
Like most art, private collectors seek wild orchids.
Many species, once abundant, are now infrequently
found in the rainforest due to over-collecting and
Rarity fetches high prices in world markets, leading
to the plunder of valued species like the
slipper orchid Paphiopedilum rothschildianum
or Dimorphorchis sp. And many rare orchids
are restricted only to certain locations. Wild
populations are thus reduced to remnants.
Several hundred orchid species are rare or are
endangered in East Malaysia alone. To protect the
remaining species of these unique plants,
conservation centres have been established in
lowland and mountain areas.
Rick Gregory has a degree in forestry.
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