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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.

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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