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Why are there no epiphytic orchids in Europe?

June 28, 2011

Yesterday when leaving the Thai temple in Jämtland, Sweden, Eric took a turn and said ‘let’s look out for orchids’. Almost immediately he shouted and hit the brakes. He stepped out and shouted again: another species: Dactylorhiza maculata ¨Here is another one: Dactylorhiza viridis¨. He ran back to the orchids he saw first, and stopped again: Gymnadenia conopsea! The first orchid was a stand of  large white Platanthera bifolia, highly fragrant. All four orchid species are terrestrial, and so it was quite interesting to see my first European orchids, although quite small.

I asked why there are no epiphytic orchids anywhere in Europe? The answer is not evident. Temperature is not the only answer, as the peak of Doi Inthanon in Thailand may have frost, and southern Europe is quite hot.  Although orchid biology is complicated including special pollinators and their host plants, one could imagine that small seeds would transport far like fungal spores and establish, although not reproduce. It seems each orchid species is highly adapted to its niche, so for germination very special requirements are needed. To move an orchid, pollinator and its host plant out of the area is tricky. However, there are many terrestrial orchids in Europe, so there is something with the epiphytic orchid  life form that does not suit Europe. We do have mistletoe (Viscum album), so plants can apparently adapt to freezing temperatures up in trees. If anyone has any clever thoughts, please share with us.

Ketsanee Seehamongkol

Swedish Platanthera bifolia (Orchidaceae) is highly fragrant and most charming!

4 Comments leave one →
  1. June 29, 2011 2:10 AM

    Following your blog and trip comments in Sweden. I’m in NE USA near temperate rain-forests. Yes, we still have some standing. Interesting your observation about the lack of epiphytic orchid species. That seems to be also true over here. But I did a quick google search to see what might be growing in Swedish botanical gardens. Found a site of orchid-growers: Svante Malmgren Henric Nyström
    http: // www. Orchids/forsaljning_eng .htm
    Not sure what area or city they’re growing in.
    Thought you would want to check them out if going by their facility.
    only contact shown was by email
    Svante.Malmgren @
    nystrom.henric @
    Enjoying your comments on your trip.
    Take some landscape photos!

  2. August 8, 2011 1:40 PM

    Here is one explanation proposed by Dr Alec Pridgeon at Kew Gardens in England:

    “The simple answer is that they did not evolve there with the requisite
    mycorrhizal fungi, pollinators, and climatic conditions. It’s like asking
    why there are no polar bears at the South Pole and penguins at the North
    Pole. They’re both cold, but…. Also, remember that the continents were
    not always in their present positions. Spain was once at the equator but
    then rafted northward and thereby lost the ideal habitats for cloud forests,
    epiphytes, etc. as the climate changed.”

  3. August 8, 2011 1:56 PM

    I am still puzzled. Although the north pole has no penguins, we did have the Great Auk (Pinguinus impennis), a large bird which could not fly, but now extinct since the mid 1800’s due to hunting. The distance between the poles would of course be a good explanation why penguins are not found in the north pole, but Eurasia is one unit. I can imagine that many epiphytic African orchids could not travel across the Sahara, but why could not Japanese and Chinese epiphytic orchids spread westwards, or Mexican orchids spread northwards after the latest ice age?

    Maybe there were epiphytic orchids in Europe before one of the many ice ages, but they have not yet returned, like the larch tree (Larix spp)? Also, cloud forests are not the preferred habitat for all orchids. Here in Chiang Mai we have six months of drought, and many orchids like Vanda flabellata and Dendrobium draconis grow on the bark of deciduous oaks and dipterocarps in really dry environments. Would anyone know where the westernmost border is in Eurasia regarding epiphytic orchids, and would anyone know the northernmost border for epiphytic orchids in North America?


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