When there was an announcement about the Annual Exhibition of the San Francisco Orchid Society, it was too tempting to resist. Ahalya and myself followed Oscar Wilde’s dictum “the best way to resist a temptation is to yield to it” and made our way to the venue which was adjacent to the sprawling San Francisco Botanical Garden.
The hall was filled to the brim with a profusion of colorful orchids of various vibrant hues and colorful patterns, the likes of which we had never set our eyes upon so far. They were extraordinarily diverse in their sizes, shapes, and colors. The enthralling variety of their colors and shapes kept us engrossed for several hours.
Orchids are repositories of vast histories
They made their debut 2000 years ago in the book ‘Enquiry into Plants’ by Theophrastus of Eresus , who is universally acknowledged as the “father of botany.” He commented that a porridge made of the bulbs of orchids increases vigor in sexual intercourse. At the same time, he also cautioned that while they may improve erections, they can also cause impotence. Not surprisingly the word orchid is derived from the Greek word orchis meaning testicle; a plant that looks like male testicles ought to have sexual effects of some kind! The myth about orchids’ aphrodisiac properties and its association with sex has lingered on for centuries.
The link between orchids and sex was reiterated by the great taxonomist Linneaus. He commented, “ the flowers’ [petals] themselves contribute nothing to generation, but only do service as bridal beds which the great Creator has so gloriously arranged, adorned with such noble bed curtains, and perfumed with so many soft scents that the bridegroom with his bride might there celebrate their nuptials with so much the greater solemnity. When now the bed is so prepared, it is time for the bridegroom to embrace his beloved bride and offer her his gift.”
Undoubtedly, orchids are an ancient flower and they have flourished through history. There is the suggestion that they were present at the same time as dinosaurs. They are the largest and most diverse family of flowering plants on Earth. How did they survive and evolve over time and what is the role of insects in their lives?
This attracted the attention of Charles Darwin. He was convinced that the orchid’s beauty was not a piece of floral whimsy. But he needed proof which came in the form of an orchid specimen from Madagascar sent by an orchid grower. It was a beautiful star shaped flower with an exceptionally long nectar spur. Upon seeing these strangely long spurs, he hypothesized that it was pollinated by a moth with an unusually long proboscis, one so long that it could reach into the depths of the nectar spur. He also postulated that the relationship was so specific, that if the moth were to become extinct on Madagascar, so too would the orchid. He outlined the complex relationships between these flowers and the insects that pollinate them and how this led to their co-evolution in his book ‘The Various Contrivances by which Orchids are Fertilized by Insects’. He posited that the incredible diversity of orchids is a function of co-evolution between these amazing flowers and their insect counterparts.
Darwin was effectively claiming that plants possessed intentions, that they had a sense of agency. It was a quantum leap to regard plants as fellow creatures, regulated by the same laws of life as those affecting human beings themselves!
The orchids’ survival is also a reflection of the myriad ways they entice the insects to pollinate. Some use sweet fragrances to attract certain bees and wasps, and others, putrid smells to attract flies. These happy insects are rewarded for their pollination with nectar. Others use striking colors that flying insects cannot resist. Still others which produce no nectar have come up with some innovative methods of attracting insects. Some mimic the smell of food. Flying insects approach the flower and crawl all over it looking for the nectar. It is not until they are covered in pollen that they give up and move on to the next one, transferring the pollen in their search for food.
Even more deceiving are the orchids that use pheromones to attract unsuspecting pollinators. They mimic the female bee or wasp visually, often using the same colors and tufts of hair and give off a chemical that smells identical to the pheromone that the female insect would emit. The gullible males climb on the flower and try to mate with it, an act described as ‘pesudocopulation’. During this futile attempt they pick up a gobbet of pollen which they pollinate when they visit another flower.
It is not surprising then that orchids have often been viewed as seductive femme fatales. One good example is HG Wells story “The Flowering of the Strange Orchid”. It is an eerie story about an orchid collector who buys an unknown species from the Andaman Islands. He is obsessed by his new acquisition and waits excitedly for it to sprout leaves and then flower. Finally, the great day arrives when the orchid’s “rich, intensely sweet scent” lures him like a seductress. He was found later lying dead at the foot of the strange orchid. The tentacle-like aerial rootlets were coiled tight around his neck.
Wonder whether it was a coincidence that the orchids’ ability to trick male wasps into pollinating them was not understood until its fictional portrayal as a wily seductress! The imaginary worlds of the writer and that of the serious scientist turn out to be part of a single interesting story!
Orchids seem to have a much more complex relationship to humans because they are so fragile yet resilient in their ability to withstand captivity and our human desire to possess them.
And they continue to bewitch us.
In the words of the journalist who wrote the engaging book The Orchid Thief, “To desire orchids is to have a desire that can never be fully requited.”
I had written about them five years ago: www.profraguram.com/musings--reflections/beguiling-orchids
Unfortunately, with 30,000 wild orchid species and hundreds of thousands of man-made hybrids, it's hard to name them with confidence and I thank Meena Subramaniam who helped me to identify some of them.
Glimpses at: photos.app.goo.gl/SAWbjru4GuiyfZVp6
Would appreciate if you post your comments here and NOT in Google Photos!