I was surprised to learn something fundamental (and fundamentally cool) about orchids (and all flowers) on my last trip to our local aquarium--which is that orchids evolved after most dinosaurs roamed the earth. Check out Gary Hincks' beautiful "Geological Timescale and Life" poster:
See the lime green stripe with flowers next to it, after the Triceratops and Velociraptor? Flowering plants evolved millions of years after many other types of life had been on Earth! More specifically, orchids are one of the oldest flowering plant families, appearing in the late Cretaceous (or Senonian) period, 65-85 million years ago.
How did paleobiologists figure this out? The story is straight out of Jurassic Park: just a few years ago, they found orchid pollinia on the back of a prehistoric bee that met its death in petrified amber. Here's another way to visualize this timeline:
Dinosaurs faced a final extinction event about 65 million years ago, but they had been around in various forms since the mid-Triassic period, roughly 225 million years ago. If we were to add orchids (and flowering plants) to this timeline, they would appear just centimeters before the red arrow--when the dinosaurs die, the Mesozoic era ends, and the Cenozoic begins.
So, which dinosaurs lived when orchids ruled the Earth? (He he.) None other than Tyrannosaurus rex! And Velociraptor! And Ankylosaurus! And Triceratops, Hadrosaurus, Spinosaurus, and Maiasaurus! As my preschooler tells me, "basically all the cool ones." And so, dear reader, my leviathan-loving preschooler and I have teamed up to present to you a diorama of dinos and orchids for your viewing pleasure:
Note: objects not to scale, nor otherwise accurate in the least!
Here's our Velociraptor cabal: "So, a Hadrosaur walked into a bar..."
(We had way too much fun with this.)
Oh, Ankylosaurus, where have you been all of my orchid life? It's highly doubtful that miniature complex hybrid phalaenopsis were around during the late Cretaceous, but man, they go great with plastic dinosaur friends!
Watch out! There's a dino in your dendrobium!
The first orchids were terrestrial, and quite small, so this jewel orchid (Ludisia discolor) is probably a bit more on target:
What all of this tells me is that orchids were a crucial element in the web of evolving life, a flowering family that was key within the development of the great Cretaceous soup of insects, turtles, crocodiles, mammals, and yes, dinosaurs. Just think: Triceratops dined on the earliest orchids. And T. rex certainly stomped all over them. All terrible lizards were around long before flowers, but what wonderful organisms made it through to the other side of mass extinction?
Orchids, that's what.