Daily Picture Show

Orchids: Lovers Or Liars?

Tune in to Weekend Edition to hear author Michael Pollan tell host Scott Simon how orchids are "the inflatable love dolls of the floral kingdom."

In 1994, John Edward Laroche was arrested for allegedly "poaching" orchids, which goes to show just how precious they are. Eight years later, Laroche was a character in Charlie Kauffman's film Adaptation, and this is what he had to say about those furtive flowers:

... what's so wonderful is that every one of these flowers has a specific relationship with the insect that pollinates it. ... And neither the flower nor the insect will ever understand the significance of their lovemaking. ... In this sense they show us how to live — how the only barometer you have is your heart. How, when you spot your flower, you can't let anything get in your way.

That's a pretty romantic way of thinking about a plant. Michael Pollan (The Omnivore's Dilemma, In Defense of Food), on the other hand, isn't quite as charmed. His article in the September issue of National Geographic magazine, accompanied by Christian Ziegler's photography, expresses admiration — but no such adulation.

  • While most plants self-pollinate, orchids have some of the most elaborate pollination systems, relying heavily on insects and birds to reproduce. In this case, a hummingbird's bill closely matches the color of the Panamanian orchid's pollen sac, so that the bundle is borne away unnoticed.
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    While most plants self-pollinate, orchids have some of the most elaborate pollination systems, relying heavily on insects and birds to reproduce. In this case, a hummingbird's bill closely matches the color of the Panamanian orchid's pollen sac, so that the bundle is borne away unnoticed.
    Photos by Christian Ziegler/National Geographic
  • According to Michael Pollan, "in the mountains of Sardinia ... orchids grow like roadside weeds." These mirror orchids imitate almost perfectly the reflection of blue sky on a female wasp's wings, attracting male wasps.
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    According to Michael Pollan, "in the mountains of Sardinia ... orchids grow like roadside weeds." These mirror orchids imitate almost perfectly the reflection of blue sky on a female wasp's wings, attracting male wasps.
  • The lengths to which these orchids have gone to resemble female bees is a natural marvel. To this male bee, a wild Italian hybrid orchid resembles his female counterpart.
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    The lengths to which these orchids have gone to resemble female bees is a natural marvel. To this male bee, a wild Italian hybrid orchid resembles his female counterpart.
  • Don't be fooled by this orchid's vivid coloration. Upon closer olfactory inspection, this flower smells rotten — repugnant to us, irresistible to a fly.
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    Don't be fooled by this orchid's vivid coloration. Upon closer olfactory inspection, this flower smells rotten — repugnant to us, irresistible to a fly.
  • Not only have orchids made incredible adaptations in appearance, they are also mechanically complex. These male Catasetum flowers hide a pollen-loaded slingshot, which fires a sticky bundle when a pollinator, such as a bee, jostles it.
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    Not only have orchids made incredible adaptations in appearance, they are also mechanically complex. These male Catasetum flowers hide a pollen-loaded slingshot, which fires a sticky bundle when a pollinator, such as a bee, jostles it.
  • These rabbit-shaped blooms in Borneo are no larger than your fingernail, and belong to a tropical genus on the Equator that may date back as far as 80 million years.
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    These rabbit-shaped blooms in Borneo are no larger than your fingernail, and belong to a tropical genus on the Equator that may date back as far as 80 million years.
  • This nectarless pansy orchid, found in Australia, closely resembles a neighboring plant, the pea flower.
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    This nectarless pansy orchid, found in Australia, closely resembles a neighboring plant, the pea flower.
  • Every orchid has a petal modified for pollination, such as the red petal on this Australian king spider orchid.  The perfume from this flower attracts several male wasps, one of which will take away the plant's pollen.
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    Every orchid has a petal modified for pollination, such as the red petal on this Australian king spider orchid. The perfume from this flower attracts several male wasps, one of which will take away the plant's pollen.

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Orchids are manipulative, self-centered, wily and sometimes downright sadistic. And yet insects and humans alike are ensnared — perhaps for those very reasons — by their ethereal beauty. Unlike most flowers, orchids require the help of insects and birds and pollinate. And so they have adapted, in some cases, to both look and smell like their pollinator's female counterparts. You can imagine how supremely frustrating this must be for a male insect, and how smug the orchid must feel — that is, how it would feel if it were sentient.

We humans are by no means impervious to the orchid's charms. Pollan and Ziegler, for example, trekked around the world in an attempt to demystify some of the orchid's secrets. But while Pollan's entertaining narrative gives us pause in our orchid fever, Ziegler's photos, in this editor's humble opinion, only serve to perpetuate that flower frenzy: They are spectacular.

View more of his photos at ngm.com, and be sure to read Pollan's full article.

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