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The world of miniature orchids...

It shouldn’t surprise anyone that there are orchids whose entire plants are smaller than the corsage grandma used to wear. Why? Miniatures far outnumber their “bigger” cousins in total species. Almost every genus of the orchid family has miniature members and these little guys can be found nearly everywhere orchids grow.

Most are epiphytes and live on branches or rocks(in which case they'd be lithophytes), using their roots as anchors and to soak up moisture from rain, dew, mist, and fog. They obtain nutrients from decaying organic matter that accumulates in the trees on which they grow. Most miniatures in the wild are found in mountainous areas from 3,000 to 9,000 feet and prefer cool conditions, like those found in cloud forests, where moist air moves up mountainsides everyday, cools, and condenses to create moisture-rich clouds.

Like all other living things, what makes an orchid a miniature is a matter of scale. Many enthusiasts place any orchid less than six inches in height, exclusive of inflorescence, in the category.

Miniature orchids come in a bewildering variety of amazing shapes and forms, including mats, tufts and vines. They can be bushy, cascading, climbing, creeping or rambling. Some are leafless or have vestigial leaves—-leaves that are rudimentary and may have been more prominent in the evolutionary past, but are no longer needed to support food production for the plant.

Like their larger counterparts, miniature orchids display beautiful colors and textures ranging from silky smooth and velvety, to strangely pimply and warty. Many wear a coat of “hairs” and some bristle with spiny looking protrusions. Some miniatures feature exquisite foliage that rivals the beauty of their flowers—-an especially nice trait as flowers can be fleeting.

The jewel-like flowers of miniatures come in every possible color from purest white to the darkest night, often combined in ways to satisfy anyone’s flower fantasies. Many are fragrant—-though some not so favorably. Some are pollinated by flies and smell like rotting meat. Those with more pleasant odors include Maxillaria tenuifolia, redolent of coconut, Masdevallia glandulosa, with a cinnamon smell, and Neofinetia falcata which fills the air that surrounds it with vanilla.

Flowers of miniature orchids are full of tails, fringes, whiskers, and knobs. Some display their flowers singly; others smother themselves when they bloom. While many flower seasonally there are others, particularly in the pleurothallid sub-tribe, that bloom successively, one flower following another, or several times a year so that they appear to be nearly always in bloom.

Even among miniatures, with their endlessly fascinating, intricate beauty, there are plants that defy belief. These belong to the realm of the micro-miniature. Entire plants can be under an 2 cm in height. Some, like Bulbophyllum minutissimum raise their heads only 4 or 5 mm. The flowers of micro-miniatures are just as attractive as other orchids. Though plant size is tiny, flower size is variable. Stelis ‘Pinhead,’ and species like it have flowers that are barely 2 mm across and need to be viewed through a magnifying to truly be appreciated. Others, Lepanthes telipogoniflora for instance, have flowers that are nearly as big as the plants themselves.

Miniature orchids are just as beautiful as the most elegant standard orchids. Part of their allure, though, is that they can be grown in small spaces, making them ideal for in-the-home gardeners. Apartment dwellers are especially fond of the diversity that miniature orchids provide, and an entire tropical garden can be grown in a window or under lights. You can grow these charming, delicate plants for a lifetime and always find something new to excite your horticultural fervor.

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