The orchid family (Orchidaceae) contains flowers considered some of the most beautiful and most bizarre on Earth. It is the largest family of flowering plants, encompassing more than 26,000 species with 100 to 200 species discovered annually. Those amounts don't include the thousands of named orchid hybrids and cultivars. Orchids grow naturally all over the world and are either terrestrial plants or epiphytes. Epiphytes grow on trees and rocks, and they don't need soil. Assuring pollination is the main driving force behind the creation of almost unbelievable orchid flower shapes and colors.
Orchids rely on highly specialized pollination strategies to lure animals to transfer pollen from flower to flower. The flowers usually don't produce nectar to reward pollinators. Instead, the flowers resemble something attractive to the pollinators, all the way from something rotten on which flies would lay their eggs to flowers that look like female flies or wasps with which males would like to mate. Appropriate aromas help make the visual trickery convincing; some orchid flowers have the odor of rotten meat, a dirty diaper or a cat's litter box. They also mimic female insects' pheromones that attract male insects.
Dracula orchids (Dracula spp.) grow in the branches of cloud forest trees in northern South America. Each Dracula orchid's large, triangular, petal-like sepal has a long spur protruding from its tip. Flowers dangle from the plants on long stems that sway in the breeze. If you grow an orchid of the Dracula genus, use a loose potting mix in a mesh, hanging pot so the flower stalks can penetrate the mix and grow downward. Dracula orchids' flower colors are shades of gray, brown, red and orange and resemble mushrooms or rotten meat. They also smell like fungi, attracting gnats that lay their eggs on such materials. Botanists thought the flowers looked like bats or mythical monsters and named the genus after the fictional vampire Count Dracula. Dracula orchids are hardy in U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) plant hardiness zones 11 and 12, and need growing conditions below 68 degrees Fahrenheit during the day and dropping to 57 to 52 degrees Fahrenheit at night.
Constructed to attract South American stingless bees, a goblin orchid (Mormodes sinuata) has a white, twisted floral column held erect against burgundy-colored petals. The column looks like a miniature Halloween character. It holds specialized pollen masses called pollinia at just the right height to place on the backs of male bees as they investigate the aroma of a female bee that the flower emits. Goblin orchids grow on trees from Mexico to Brazil under tropical conditions; they are hardy in USDA zones 11 and 12. Elsewhere, they grow in greenhouses and on warm windowsills. They need a minimum temperature of 55 to 62 degrees Fahrenheit, and they have a winter dormancy period of two to three months.
A Medusa bulbophyllum orchid (Bulbophyllum medusae, formerly Cirrhopetalum medusae) produces many clusters of delicate-looking, white flowers. Each has long, trailing sepals that are variously said to resemble a beard or a fireworks explosion. The flowers dance invitingly on the tropical breezes of the plant's homeland, Southeast Asia, wafting a scent of something about to decay to announce their presence to the flies that pollinate them. The name "Medusa" comes from the resemblance of the flower clusters to the mythological Greek character Medusa, who had snakes instead of hair. Medusa bulbophyllum orchids need to be in USDA zone 12 to grow outdoors, but they grow in greenhouses and other indoor locations elsewhere.
The long-spurred, speckled and striped flowers of spider orchids (Brassia spp.) resemble a group of spiders on a branch. If you wonder what would find a herd of spiders attractive, the answer is spider-hunting wasps. Large, strong wasps usually called tarantula hunters (Pepsis spp. and Campsomeris spp.) look for large spiders. When a female wasp finds a spider, she stings it, injecting a paralyzing venom. Then she drags the spider to her burrow and lays an egg on it. The larval wasp uses the helpless, live spider for food as it grows. When the large, strong wasps see a spider orchid flower, they try to sting the flower's lip, receiving pollinia on their heads for their troubles. Spider orchids are hardy in tropical climates, such as USDA zone 12, and their range is from Florida, the West Indies and Central America to South America. Elsewhere, they are grown indoors.