Random Facts About … Orchids and Our Obsession With Them

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By David Martin – 

When we opened our internet tubes for cleaning this week, all manner of fascinating information came out about orchids. These plants with their intricate flowers have been around for 200 million years and, in spite of our assumption that all orchids are tropical, they grow all over the Earth, from the equator to the Arctic circle. 

Orchids’ strange, exotic flowers evolved as lures for insects, tempting those insects into the flowers with food or false promises of sex. The orchids that offer nectar will appeal to all manner of bugs — flies, wasps, bees, ants. But the species that offer sex will appeal exclusively to the male of whatever insect species the flower has evolved to attract. The orchid that has evolved to be pollinated by the male wasp will look like a female wasp. Another orchid, pollinated by the male bee, offers a flower that looks and smells so much like a female bee that the male will attempt to breed with the flower and thus cover himself with orchid pollen, which is carried to the next deceptive flower. 

A team of researchers from Italy, South Africa, and Germany found that orchids offering nectar to multiple pollinators had more pollen taken from them but much of that pollen was lost or deposited in the “wrong” species of orchid. The orchids that appealed to a single male species of insects had more of their pollen end up where it was intended — pollinating the right species. 

Offering sex instead of food seems an effective way of propagating. (So much for the stomach being the way to a man’s heart.) In 2019, Katy Kelleher wrote a Longreads article about orchids in which she quotes Micheal Pollan as calling orchids “the inflatable love dolls of the floral kingdom.” 

Kelleher’s article is primarily about humankind’s fascination with — and often destructive behavior toward — orchids. In Victorian England, orchid mania became so insane that explorers traveled the world seeking new species of orchids, often “harvesting” entire populations of a species to bring back to England. Kelleher writes, “Dozens of orchid hunters died abroad, killed by illness, accident, or foul play.” 

Susan Orlean’s book, “The Orchid Thief,” was made into a film, “Adaptation.” In the book, Orlean described one orchid-hunting expedition: “In 1901, eight orchid hunters went on an expedition to the Philippines. Within a month one of them had been eaten by a tiger; another had been drenched with oil and burned alive; five had vanished into thin air; and one had managed to stay alive.” Apparently, that last person left the jungle with “either 47,000 or 7,000 orchids, depending on the source,” according to Kelleher. 

When we fancy something, we’re apparently willing to strip the world bare to acquire it: 32 species of orchids have been collected into extinction in Bangladesh alone. 

Responsible orchid growers will stick to species commonly available and not endangered. Most orchids are epiphytic, meaning they grow on the surface of trees and other plants, and most houseplant orchids are of this type. Some of them, like the phalaenopsis orchid, are easy to grow and just as beautiful as anything collected in the wilds of Bangladesh.

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