Deception, Sex, Aeration: The Secret Life Of Orchids

Orchids are hearty and easy to grow, according to Robert Fuchs, master orchid grower and president of R.F. Orchids in Homestead, Fla. Fuchs, reporting from the Barbados Orchid Society Show, shares orchid growing tips. Plus, botanist Timo van der Niet describes a species of orchid that has managed to replicate the odor of rotting roadkill to attract preferred pollinators.

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IRA FLATOW, host:

You're listening to SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow.

Up next: an orchid extravaganza. I - it's no secret that orchids are a passion and a hobby of mine. And up first this hour, Flora Lichtman is here with our Video Pick of the Week.

Welcome, Flora.

FLORA LICHTMAN: Hi, Ira.

FLATOW: And it's a special orchid video, right?

LICHTMAN: It's a very special orchid video. Jacques Dumais and Daniel Fulop looked at a genus called Catasetum. Now, I hadn't heard of this genus.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: There are a lot of them in orchids.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LICHTMAN: Apparently, there are a lot of them. But it really caught Darwin's eye, it turns out. He dedicated a whole chapter of one of his books - he was a prolific guy, but...

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

LICHTMAN: ...a whole chapter to this genus, because they do this really remarkable thing that you can see in our website, @sciencefriday.com, which is they eject to their pollinarium - this, sort of, long structure - from the flower, the male flowers, onto the back of a bee that's moving. I mean, you know...

FLATOW: Wait, wait, wait.

LICHTMAN: It's almost impossible to believe.

FLATOW: There's a bee that has landed on the orchid.

LICHTMAN: The bee lands on the orchid. It's drawn to the orchid by the scent, actually. It's not there for nectar. It's there for aromas. And it pushes a trigger hair, and the flower pops out this pollinarium, which spins through the air and then glues itself to the back of the bee. I'm excited, because it's really remarkable to see.

FLATOW: And you could see this on our Video Pick of the Week there on sciencefriday.com. There's video that Flora's put together. And it sticks to the bee?

LICHTMAN: It sticks to the bee. And then, you know, if all goes well for the orchid, the bee will take it to a female flower and pollinate that flower. But this is really just - we're just kicking off orchid fest. This is just the part of it. In fact, later in the hour, we'll have Robert Fuchs on the line, who's been called the Orchid King.

So if you have questions about growing your orchids, orchid misconceptions, now is the chance to get them cleared up. Our number's 1-800-989-TALK, 800-989-8255. But before we do that, more weird orchid news.

FLATOW: More. Wait, there's more?

LICHTMAN: There's more.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LICHTMAN: This week, a study came out in the journal, the Annals of Botany, about an orchid you probably wouldn't want in your living room, because it's really smelly.

FLATOW: Hmm. I have some nice-smelling orchids. But I wouldn't want -what does it smell like?

LICHTMAN: It smells like rotting flesh. It smells like road kill, literally.

FLATOW: Well, you don't know my living room. So...

(Soundbite of laughter)

LICHTMAN: Yeah, this is all relative, right. We have the author of this study who studied this orchid, Timo van der Niet. He's a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Cape Town in South Africa. And he's here to tell us a little bit more about this orchid.

Welcome to the program, Timo.

Mr. TIMO VAN DER NIET (Postdoctoral Researcher, University of Cape Town): Thank you very much.

LICHTMAN: So what - why - what's in it for the orchid? Why does it smell so bad?

Mr. VAN DER NIET: We think that it does that to attract its pollinators. The special thing about these orchids, which is not so unusual for orchids, but quite unusual for other flowering plants, is that it doesn't provide any reward for insects that visit it. So it can't lure insects to come to it by offering nectar or pollen as a reward. So it needs to find another trick to attract insects, and we think that it does that by mimicking carrion.

LICHTMAN: So it's deceiving the insects into coming. And why would insects - I guess these flies are usually attracted to road kill? Is that the idea?

Mr. VAN DER NIET: That's correct. When we first arrived at our field site and set off this research, we - the first thing that struck us was, by smelling the orchid, how badly it smelled.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. VAN DER NIET: But we initially didn't see any insects coming to the orchid. So we sort of made a link with the smell of road kill and tried to attract flies in a different way by actually laying out road kill and see whether we could see whether the flies that visit road kill are the same ones that visit the orchid.

LICHTMAN: This is real inglorious field work, laying out road kill.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. VAN DER NIET: Not always pleasant.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: I bet you your grad students did it, right? You didn't lay out the...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. VAN DER NIET: I would have loved to, but...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. VAN DER NIET: (unintelligible)

LICHTMAN: So - and what did you find when you put the road kill out? Did these insects come? And how did you tie that to the orchid, then?

Mr. VAN DER NIET: There's one very convenient thing about orchids, which you just mentioned in relation to the previous orchids you talked about, and that is that the pollen of orchids are aggregated into packages, which are called pollinarium. And these packages often stand out. They're bright yellow and quite large compared to normal pollen grains. So when an insect has visited several flowers, you actually see these pollen packages sticking onto the insect, and even from a couple of meters away. So you don't have to hang around the road kill too closely.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. VAN DER NIET: You can actually see that some of these flies that visited the carrion also visited the orchid.

LICHTMAN: Oh, so you saw the pollen on the insects, and that told you...

Mr. VAN DER NIET: That's correct.

LICHTMAN: ...that they had visited the orchid first. So do you - is the scent - the roadkill smell an exact replica? Is there a way to quantify smell?

Mr. VAN DER NIET: We - the laboratory that I work for at the University of KwaZulu-Natal is specialized in analyzing scent of flowers. And we use machines that are also commonly used in the perfume industry, where you can analyze the chemical profile of a certain bouquet - of scent bouquet.

And it turned out that orchids produces about six chemical compounds, and the most important ones are sulfur compounds, which you also smell if you smell rotten eggs. And they are also the main compounds of carrion. So there's a very strong overlap between the scent bouquet of carrion and that of the plant, and we could actually chemically identify the compounds

LICHTMAN: That's kind of amazing. It's hard to imagine how a plant evolves that capability, to match scents. I mean, are its close relatives a little bit smelly?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. VAN DER NIET: Well, you're exactly right. They are a little bit smelly.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. VAN DER NIET: So you can sort of think of a pathway and where the carrion flower is sort of the ultimate product of a pathway of fly pollination, and the close relatives, like you say, aren't as badly smelling, but they certainly aren't pleasant either.

FLATOW: Well - but this orchid then knows that it - are flies attracted to it because it smells like carrion? Did flies evolve with it during its lifetime so that, you know, they have a symbiotic relationship here?

Mr. VAN DER NIET: No. This is not the case. It's a one-way traffic, basically, because the flies don't get anything out of it. And, in fact, there were situations where flies had visited so many flowers, that the burden of the pollen packages wore them down so badly that they couldn't fly anymore.

So the fly would do much better off not visiting the flower, but we think that the cues that the plant produce are so strong that the fly simply can't afford to ignore those cues.

LICHTMAN: Hmm. Fascinating. Timo, thanks for joining us today.

Mr. VAN DER NIET: It's a pleasure. Thank you.

LICHTMAN: Timo van der Niet is a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Cape Town in South Africa. But, Ira, don't worry. There's more to orchid facts.

FLATOW: Wait, there's more?

(Soundbite of laughter)

LICHTMAN: We have Robert Fuchs, who's the president of R.F. Orchids on Homestead, Florida. And he actually is joining us from the Barbados Orchid Society Show. So we have someone on the site of an orchid show.

FLATOW: I am so jealous.

LICHTMAN: Robert, welcome to the program.

Mr. ROBERT FUCHS (President, R.F. Orchids, Inc.): Thank you very much.

LICHTMAN: So what's the scene like down there?

FLATOW: Yeah.

Mr. FUCHS: Well, it's very warm, for one thing. The show is beautiful. They have it every two years. And they nurture their plants and they grow them and they get them ready for exhibition. And this is their biannual show - well, biyearly show. And they have just done a spectacular job this year.

We've just finished the American Orchid Society judging, which I am the chair of the team here for the American Orchid Society. And one of the plants that they had grown for several years received a first class certificate. And actually, it's the first time of anybody from Barbados has ever received a first class certificate, so they are elated.

LICHTMAN: Do you groom certain plants for show? Is it like, show dogs?

Mr. FUCHS: Yes. Just like show dogs, you groom them, you stake them, you tie them up, you want them to open up to - just to - absolutely to the best of their perfection. And you bring them in and we have a group of AOS judges who are here for the American Orchid Society from all over the U.S. and with the local Barbarian people here from Barbados.

And they are just - we have gone through and judged them and given them ribbons and picked out the best and one of the - then we do the AOS judging, which is a really sophisticated judging system.

FLATOW: You know, a lot of people think it's so hard to grow orchids. I grow orchids myself. I have my prized Vanda on our SCIENCE FRIDAY Facebook page. I understand you're a Vanda aficionado. Just between you and I, no one else knows what we're talking about.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FUCHS: Right.

FLATOW: But people - they're not as hard to grow as people think they are, and you've - they've been hybridized so much that you can just about grow them anywhere, right?

Mr. FUCHS: Yeah. Orchids are - actually, they're so easy to grow. And, you know, they were first brought over to the Europe in the 1600s. They used the bulbs for packing material. And then some of these bulbs actually started growing after they've been in a boat for two months.

LICHTMAN: Wow.

Mr. FUCHS: And now they're very, very easy to grow. They are - more people kill orchids with too much love and especially too much water than anything else.

LICHTMAN: Robert, we have a listener on the line, Teri(ph) from Lewes, Delaware, who needs some advice.

Mr. FUCHS: Okay.

LICHTMAN: Hi, Teri. Welcome to the show.

TERI (Caller): Hi. Thank you for taking my call. I have a, I think it's called Margaret Daganham(ph). It's an absolutely gorgeous orchid that has a beautiful spicy aroma. My son gave it to me about 15 years ago for Mother's Day. And I transplanted it into a larger pot at some point. And the roots are all growing up around the outside of the pot. And I'm afraid now to move it and because I don't had to avoid breaking those roots.

Mr. FUCHS: Okay. Is it a Cattleya or Phalaenopsis?

TERI: Oh, I'm very sorry, I don't know.

FLATOW: Well, what shape are the leaves - the leaf?

Mr. FUCHS: Does it have bulbs?

FLATOW: Yeah?

TERI: What?

Mr. FUCHS: Does it have bulbs?

TERI: They're sort of swollen...

Mr. FUCHS: It kind of creeps and grows across the pot, right...

TERI: Yeah. Yeah.

Mr. FUCHS: ...not just straight up? Okay. It's probably in the (unintelligible) group. And the main thing about repotting almost any orchids (unintelligible) kind of general is that you need to make sure the plant is in growth. Make sure it's growing. Either a new growth is coming up - and especially in the Phalaenopsis alliance, make sure either a new - a leaf is coming out of the center or a blue spike. The plant has to be active when you repot it. If it's not, the plant will go backwards.

FLATOW: Hmm.

TERI: Okay.

LITCHMAN: Thanks for calling, Teri.

TERI: All right. Thank you very much.

FLATOW: Is this a good season to start repotting? Is this the time of year?

Mr. FUCHS: This is the best season. Springtime, the plants, especially in Vandaceous alliance, the plants have been sitting for several months in kind of a low light and short days. And now, the days are starting to pick up. And it's get, you know, it's get along - hold just a second.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LITCHMAN: This is what happens when you're at an orchid show.

Mr. FUCHS: I'm sorry. They're actually moving some tables around - sorry about that - at the show here. Anyway, as the days get longer, this is the time repot. Absolutely, positively, the springtime is the time. And then - especially the Vandaceous alliance, the plant can get better established and get it prepared for the winter, and they has all summer to grow.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

LITCHMAN: You're listening to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

FLATOW: From NPR.

LITCHMAN: Robert, but not all - do all orchids need soil? It's not like I've seen them without soil.

Mr. FUCHS: No. There's two different types. There's epiphytic orchids that grow on trees and there's terrestrial orchids that actually grow in the ground. And orchids grow at every state of the United State except Hawaii, grow in the wild. We have a lot of orchids that grow in Minnesota, which is the state flower by the way.

LITCHMAN: Oh.

Mr. FUCHS: And then we have orchids that grow in Alaska. And those all terrestrial orchids that go dormant like a lily, the bulbs are - things go dormant in the wintertime and they come back up. And as you get closer to the equator, you have the tropics and the subtropics and the tropical areas. And those are areas where plants grow in the trees that are epiphytic.

LITCHMAN: Hmm. It's just a huge diversity within this group, right? I mean, I read it was more species than - double the number of species of birds there are orchids?

Mr. FUCHS: Yeah. Unbelievable. Unbelievable. The diversity, the color range, the size from a pinpoint to, you know, 12 inches across, 14 inches across, so you - I mean, it's just absolutely unbelievable. It's such an incredible group of orchids. And most people get excited about the corsage orchid. That's the first one they see, the big Cattleya. And then they started - if they're interested in it, they'll start studying and they'll see, my goodness, what a great group of plants.

FLATOW: And you know they - I've seen them in the big box stores for like $20 now.

Mr. FUCHS: Right.

FLATOW: Some of these - is it okay to buy them there and you don't have to go to a, you know, a fancy flower store?

Mr. FUCHS: Well, it's okay to buy them there. But the thing about the box stores are stores that are mass-producing orchids and they - a lot of them are filled with hormones. The plants are there. And they're growing them as a pot plant, like a mum plant. They want you to enjoy it. And it flowered out. And then throw it away and buy another one.

And so the credible orchid nurseries who grow plants and nurture plants and keep them growing - and if you're a really a good hobby grower or a professional grower, you're going to buy from a farm that has grown the plant from seed to maturity and can tell you they actually take care of it.

LICHTMAN: Is there a way to select the best orchid? If I'm at the - if I'm at a nursery, how do I know which one is healthy?

Mr. FUCHS: You want to look for a good, clean, green leaves, no blotches or lines along on them because that's the sign of - could be a virus plant. You want to see nice, strong roots and a nice, strong, well-established plant.

A lot of the plants that we find in the box store are plants that come out of little three-inch pots and they put them in a six-inch pot with a lot of sphagnum moss and the plant is not established. And therefore the shock of being transplanted and the shock of being put into a box for a week, and then put it on a shelf in the air conditioning with no - not the proper watering, the plant obviously goes into shock.

LICHTMAN: We have, I think, time for one very, very quick question. Nancy(ph) from Genesee, Idaho, welcome to the program.

NANCY (Caller): Hi. Thanks. I have four orchids. I have a big Brassia, a Cattleya and two Phalaenopsis.

Mr. FUCHS: Great.

NANCY: And I can't get my - I have one phal that I bought in bloom and it's still blooming, but my other three are all about a year old and they haven't re-bloomed. And I'm not sure what I'm doing wrong.

Mr. FUCHS: Well, they probably - the Brassia and the Cattleya need more light than the Phalaenopsis. A good thing to think about is the wider the leaf, the more shade the plant can take. If the leaf is narrower, it needs more sunlight for the photosynthesis to take place. So maybe the Phalaenopsis will readily re-bloom as long as you don't over-water. Now, we water oru Phalaenopsis only once a week. It depends what they're growing in...

NANCY: Mm-hmm.

Mr. FUCHS: ...but once a week is plenty for that. But they probably need more light. You need to give a little more sunlight, especially this time of year.

FLATOW: Give us a - thanks for the call. Give us a website we could go to if we want to start now after hearing this, raising our - growing our own orchids. What's the best place to learn about it?

Mr. FUCHS: I would say probably the American Orchid Society.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Mr. FUCHS: Now we have culture on our website, which is info@rforchids.com. But the American Orchid Society is the premiere organization in America. And they also have a wonderful website, americanorchidsociety.com it is. And they have also culture and an incredible publication they put out.

LICHTMAN: Robert, thanks so much for joining us today.

Mr. FUCHS: Thank you, and it was my pleasure. I really enjoy talking with you, folks.

LICHTMAN: Thanks. Robert Fuchs is the president of R.F. Orchids in Homestead, Florida, joining us from the Barbados Orchid Society show.

FLATOW: Thank you, Flora, for the orchid fest.

LICHTMAN: Thanks. Thanks for having me, Ira.

FLATOW: You're welcome. Flora Lichtman is our Video Pick of the Week chooser. She's our multimedia editor. So go to our website, it's sciencefriday.com. And you can watch this incredible video, an orchid snapping over a fly. It's this kind of interesting stuff. You've never seen it before.

And then, while you're on our website, you can go to iTunes, subscribe to our podcast, both audio and video. And you can go download our Android apps and take them with you and our iPhone apps.

And also join us at Twitter. The whole week long will be on Twitter @scifri. Our Facebook page, /scifri, and you can talk to us and communicate us - with us. Also, go to our website @sciencefriday.com, and please join our survey there. We want to collect enough folk -enough information so that the folks out there know what we'd like to have on the program. We want to hear from you.

Have a great weekend. We'll see you next week. I'm Ira Flatow in New York.

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