Whilst you’re reading this, scores of people here and there on Samui are inordinately busy with an extremely delicate task. If you glimpse them at work, you’ll see lots of dedication in their eyes, and patience, too. It also takes great skill to do what they do each day. They work with flowers. But not just any old flowers. Their attention is focused a flower that epitomizes Asia in general, and Thailand in particular – orchids.
Some of the orchids are simply cut and placed in vases, whilst others are wrapped carefully in thin wire to make sure they hold up during the long hot day. And still others are made into garlands which are given to guests and dignitaries. At some resorts, orchids appear in flower bouquets on tables, and they’re even used to spell out words of welcome that are left on guests’ beds.
Their population has boomed over the last 30 years, due to this love and demand. Hotels and resorts are filled with orchids thanks to farms producing millions of them every year. Most of the farms are to be found in the cooler north of Thailand, but they exist just about everywhere, showing just how popular orchids have become.
You may even wish to take some home. And, surprisingly, you can do this with ease. There’s no problem with taking entire orchids out of the country, or taking them into Europe. Conveniently, you can even pick up an orchid or two at Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport and take them along with you. Naturally, you can also ask at your resort if they can spare you an orchid to take home.
Undoubtedly, you’ll have seen orchids within a day of being on Samui. You may not recognize them as such, and just think they are local flowers. There are, after all, so many varieties of them. Order a fruit shake and the chances are it’ll come with a small orchid gracing the rim of the glass. And if you’re staying in luxury accommodation, you may well find your towels are topped with a small purple orchid. Flower displays at weddings often include plenty of orchids mixed in with other tropical flowers, making brilliant bouquets.
In many people’s minds, orchids are synonymous with exotic lands, and Thailand is indeed home to many species of these beautiful flowers. Although they’re most plentiful in the tropics, it’s an exaggeration to say that orchids are only to be found in hot places. You can actually find them almost anywhere in the world, and you may come across them in quite extreme climates. If you’re in Scandinavia or Canada, for instance, and know what you’re looking for you, can find quite a few examples.
Meanwhile, in Thailand there are over a thousand types of orchid, with many new varieties awaiting discovery. If you’re walking off the beaten track in tropical rainforests and jungles, you might be very lucky and come across an unknown type of orchid, but you’d have to be an expert to realise your good fortune. What’s astonishing is that even horticultural experts themselves can’t agree how many types there are. The numbers fluctuate according to who you talk to. Some put the number as low as 15,000, whilst others proclaim that there are at least 25,000. The point being that there’s a lot about these beautiful flowers that remains a mystery.
And this is compounded by the fact that even if orchids are all part of a single scattered family, they’re incredibly diverse. It’s almost as if they take a peculiar pride in being different from each other. The ways in which they reproduce are individual, too, and often downright chancy. For some kinds of orchid, you’ll find there’s only one kind of insect that can assist in pollination – no other will do, apparently. And in other cases, the insect is put through its paces and has to negotiate a maze of petals in order to get to the pollen.
You may think that orchids look very pretty, but their beauty is extremely functional. Without it they’d probably die out. As with most flowers, their colours serve to attract their pollinators, who may be very few in number. Orchids also use scent and even shape to make sure they get propagated. Their glamour is of a ruthless kind, and sometimes they even use their looks to repel. Orchids don’t want any old insect near them, so some have shapes that vaguely resemble spiders and other off-putting creatures.
Orchids, like all plants, need water, and get it in a variety of ways. Some are like air plants, and simply drink in the natural
humidity around them. Others store rainwater in sacks that they’ve grown, or live in nooks and crannies in trees and rely on rivulets of water to feed them, whilst a very few are true scavengers and survive from decayed vegetation, which tends to have a high water content.
Even though they look so delicate, orchids are tougher than you’d imagine. The strange, still unexplored world of these plants has inspired many people to become serious collectors. Who knows, you may be ready to don a pith helmet and venture into Samui’s deepest jungles in search of these truly awesome plants. You certainly wouldn’t be the first to do so.