Orchids belong to the plant family Orchidaceae, one of the largest families of flowering plants with at least 25,000 species. Orchids are found throughout the world except Antarctica, from the tropics to montane cloud forests. Many orchids are native to the United States, but the majority grow in the tropics and subtropics. Orchids have long been valued for their beautiful and unique flowers, scents, foliage, and medicinal uses. In fact, vanilla comes from an orchid.
Orchids are either terrestrial (growing on the ground) or epiphytic (growing on other plants, such as a tree), and require mycorrhizal fungi (fungi on their roots) to provide the plant with minerals and carbohydrates. Many orchids have highly specialized pollinator relationships with bees, moths, and other insects. The shape of the orchid flower leads nectar-seeking insects to pick up and drop off pollen as they visit the flower.
Many orchids are commonly available as houseplants and are sold in nurseries and stores across the United States. Most of the orchids sold in the United States and traded internationally are not collected from the wild, but are cultivated, including many U.S. native species. Horticulturists have created more than 100,000 hybrids of orchid.
Orchids are also used in herbal remedies. Native Americans and early settlers dug and dried certain orchid roots for their medicinal properties. Orchids are used in other ancient medicines, such as Chinese traditional medicine.
While many wild orchids are not considered rare, several are naturally rare due to their specialized habitat requirements and small populations. Over-collection of plants from the wild can also cause orchids to become uncommon. Collection in the wild and loss of habitat have led to decline of orchids, both in the United States and abroad. There are many local, national, and global efforts to conserve orchids and their habitat.
Laws & Regulations
Orchids have varying levels of rarity and protection throughout the United States, and laws vary from State to State. Some species are federally-listed under the Endangered Species Act (ESA). It is illegal to dig up plants or pick flowers on National Parks and permitting requirements vary on U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management land.
In addition, the entire orchid family, including all orchids native to the United States and its territories, is listed under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). Most of the family is listed in Appendix II, so that exports require a CITES permit. Several species are listed in the more restrictive Appendix I; this means that all imports and exports must be accompanied by a CITES permit. Orchids can be grown in nurseries using methods that are not harmful to wild populations, helping to satisfy the international demand for these beautiful plants and reducing collection pressure on wild populations.
For more information on orchids and regulations on trade, please visit the Endangered Species Program, the Branch of Permits, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).
For CITES permit information, visit our Branch of Permits page.