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Think of orchids as the Cadillac of flowers. They're bigger, flashier and more expensive than most other species. While other plants might be more useful, or necessary to human survival, orchids uniquely invoke both the best and worst in people. Theirs is a unique status in their relationship with us. Literature, poetry and film portray orchids with an adulation verging on worship. Avid collectors have defied death in their pursuit of a particularly rare specimen or new species. On the other side, some species of orchids have been driven to virtual extinction by the greed of those who see them as a source of income.

Their fragile beauty and intricate structure enamor them to us, but the orchids' greater purpose of being has little to do with people.

The Orchidaceae is the most diverse plant family, comprising 25,000 species worldwide. It"s risky to generalize about such a large group, but generally, they are perennial, producing leaves from a bulb-like structure at the base. Most are pollinated by insects, usually bees or wasps, and often highly co-evolved with just one or two species.

African orchids occur in most habitats, from terrestrial to epiphytic. Malawi (where the photo on the previous page was taken) is among the richest countries in Africa for orchids. About 280 terrestrial species are described, and about 120 epiphytic species. Local diversity is highest in montane zones, including Nyika Plateau and Zomba and Mulanje Mountains.

In Africa, orchids are not generally of economic importance besides Vanilla planifolia (used as flavoring) which is cultivated throughout the tropics. Some orchids with pronounced tuberous roots are used for food, but this use in minor, confined to rural people. Other species are used more widely for medicinal purposes, but their practical value has yet to be scientifically established. Few African species are cultivated for decorative purposes. Most of these orchid species originate from South America or Asia (see Amazon orchids for more information). Due to the lack of economic exploitation, most African orchids are not directly threatened, although habitat loss due to farming, logging and settlement is a significant concern.


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