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The Orchidaceae are a diverse and widespread family of flowering plants, with blooms that are often colourful and fragrant, commonly known as the orchid family.
Along with the Asteraceae, they are one of the two largest families of flowering plants. The Orchidaceae have about 28,000 currently accepted species, distributed in about 763 genera. The determination of which family is larger is still under debate, because verified data on the members of such enormous families are continually in flux. Regardless, the number of orchid species is nearly equal to the number of bony fishes, more than twice the number of bird species, and about four times the number of mammal species.
The family encompasses about 6–11% of all seed plants. The largest genera are Bulbophyllum (2,000 species), Epidendrum (1,500 species), Dendrobium (1,400 species) and Pleurothallis (1,000 species). It also includes Vanilla (the genus of the vanilla plant), the type genus Orchis, and many commonly cultivated plants such as Phalaenopsis and Cattleya. Moreover, since the introduction of tropical species into cultivation in the 19th century, horticulturists have produced more than 100,000 hybrids and cultivars.
Orchids are easily distinguished from other plants, as they share some very evident derived characteristics or synapomorphies. Among these are: bilateral symmetry of the flower (zygomorphism), many resupinate flowers, a nearly always highly modified petal (labellum), fused stamens and carpels, and extremely small seeds.
The Orchidaceae are well known for the many structural variations in their flowers.
Some orchids have single flowers, but most have a racemose inflorescence, sometimes with a large number of flowers. The flowering stem can be basal, that is, produced from the base of the tuber, like in Cymbidium, apical, meaning it grows from the apex of the main stem, like in Cattleya, or axillary, from the leaf axil, as in Vanda.
As an apomorphy of the clade, orchid flowers are primitively zygomorphic (bilaterally symmetrical), although in some genera, such as Mormodes, Ludisia, and Macodes, this kind of symmetry may be difficult to notice.
The orchid flower, like most flowers of monocots, has two whorls of sterile elements. The outer whorl has three sepals and the inner whorl has three petals. The sepals are usually very similar to the petals (thus called tepals, 1), but may be completely distinct.
The medial petal, called the labellum or lip (6), which is always modified and enlarged, is actually the upper medial petal; however, as the flower develops, the inferior ovary (7) or the pedicel usually rotates 180°, so that the labellum arrives at the lower part of the flower, thus becoming suitable to form a platform for pollinators. This characteristic, called resupination, occurs primitively in the family and is considered apomorphic, a derived characteristic all Orchidaceae share. The torsion of the ovary is very evident from the longitudinal section shown (below right). Some orchids have secondarily lost this resupination, e.g. Epidendrum secundum.
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