With nearly 30,000 known species, the Orchid Family comprises the largest plant species in the world — and new kinds are still being discovered every few months, including three last fall near Machu Picchu.
Though orchids are associated with the tropics, they live on nearly every continent and in every climate — from the marshes of the Everglades to the mountaintops of the Andes. Their bilateral symmetry mimics the human face, which makes them so visually pleasing to us that people have been hunting them since the Victorian Era.
Here’s a roundup of destinations where you can go on your own orchid hunt.
The Big Pink (now classified as Dendrochilum hampelii) made news in October when scientists classified it as a new species; it was being sold under the name Big Pink at flower stands since 2013. However, the flower — native to Bukidnon and Misamis Oriental in the Philippines — is just one of some 900 species of orchids endemic to the island nation. The Euanthe sanderiana (above) is the only one that is unique to the Philippines (it is found in the island of Mindanao) and has been unofficially named the country’s national flower.
Though the Pacific Northwest is home to approximately 40 species of orchids, most are colored green or brown and are difficult to spot. But the Calypso orchid, also known as Venus’s Slipper, has bright purple petals that jump out at you as you wander through Oregon’s wooded trails, despite only being the height of your forearm. Because they are too delicate to transport and are considered an endangered species, the best way to see them is in person. Go from March to April, when they are usually in bloom.
The White Egret Orchid (Pecteilis radiata) looks almost exactly like the bird it is named after. Also called the Sagiso in Japan, it is the official flower of Setagaya ward in Tokyo. The White Egret grows in grassy wetlands throughout Japan, as well as in China, Korea, and Russia. It blooms from July to August (damp season) and can grow up to 16 inches tall.
The Naked Man Orchid (Orchis italica) gets its name from its tiny petals which resemble naked men with dotted eyes and smiles. The flower grows in pink clusters that are hard to find in the wild; your best bet is to wander off through the abandoned farmland along Crete’s Mediterranean shore, where they blossom between March and May. For specifics, follow the Orchid Conservation Coalition of Crete, which aims to preserve the island’s native flora in protected, orchid-rich meadows along the coast.
Discovered in January by a team of scientists from Mexico and the United States, the Encyclia inopinata grows in deciduous forests along the Pacific slope of Oaxaca. They are marked by their wide, leather-like petals and colorful markings. The color varies from bronze-green with dark purple lines to pale pink and white, with reddish-brown spots, and you can find them in bloom between March and July.
While the Singapore Botanic Gardens hosts an incredible display of biodiversity in and of itself, its separate orchid garden — which contains about 2,000 hybrids and 1,000 species on display — is a floral wonderland. A visit here offers what might be the most comprehensive, up-close look at the world’s vast variety of endangered orchids. The rarest species — the VIP orchids — are dedicated to foreign diplomats, like the Margaret Thatcher (above), who visit the nation.
The Río Zuñac Reserve in Central Ecuador is a hotbed for diverse plant life. Located in the foothills of the eastern Andes on the western edge of the Amazon Basin, the reserve is home to at least 20 plant species unique to the region, among them a number of orchids. The Neooreophilus chaoae, discovered last year, is one of the most recent findings. Ecuador is also home to the Dracula orchid (above).
At the Kent Downs, which stretch from the White Cliffs of Dover to the London and Surrey borders, you can stroll through serene meadows spotting 11 different species of orchids. One of the most striking is the Late Spider Orchid — commonly confused with the Bee Orchid — which can be found throughout Europe and as far east as Iraq.
Of North America’s 200 species of orchids, half are native to Florida. The Dendrophylax lindenii, or the Ghost Orchid, is one of the rarest in the world. It lives in moist, swampy forests like the Everglades (as well as parts of Cuba) and the bulk of the plant consists only of flat, cord-like, green roots. The flower blossoms between June and August.
Climbers on their way to Machu Picchu often stumble upon bright pink and purple orchids hiding amongst the trees on the Inca Trail. Ten percent of the world’s orchids exist in Peru, and last year three new species — the Epidendrum Ochoae, Epidendrum Incahuamanii, and Epidendrum Mormontoy — were discovered near Machu Picchu alone, prompting International Nature & Cultural Adventures (INCA) to launch an eight-day excursion to bring outdoor enthusiasts to see them (the next trip is in March 2017). Other places to catch a glimpse include the Manu National Park and Tambopata National Reserve, which are home to hundreds of Peru’s more than 3,000 orchid varieties.
Lopé National Park in Gabon — one of the largest National Parks in Central Africa — became the first protected park in the country in 1946 and was added to UNESCO’s World Heritage List in 2007, as it contains one of the few remaining grass savannas created during the last Ice Age 15,000 years ago. In addition to the gorillas, elephants, and some 400 species of birds that live there, you can also find a variety of wild orchids. Tourists are able to stay at the research center in the park and take part in the daily research program, and it has its own airstrip — making it easier to get to (if you can first figure out how to get to Gabon).
Madagascar’s rainforest habitat supports a number of surreal-looking species — from the horrific Madagascar cockroach, to exquisite flowers, like the Sobennikoffi orchid, of which there are four known species and all are endemic to Madagascar. One of the best places to see them is Andasibe-Mantadia National Park, located on the eastern side of the country. Declared a World Heritage Site in 2007, the national park is a three-hour drive east of the capital city, Antananarivo. A local guide is required.