Orchids—Beautiful, Bountiful Mimics
‘ORCHIDS! For me? Oh, how lovely!’ With a response like that, you are well on your way to an enjoyable occasion, whether it be a wedding, a farewell meal or just a quiet dinner for two. It would seem that the claim of a certain orchid growers’ association may be valid, ‘When you send orchids, wonderful things happen!’
Wherein lies the appeal of orchids? Can you grow them yourself?
One of the reasons why orchids enjoy such popularity is that, with up to 35,000 species, they comprise “the largest family of flowering plants, nearly a seventh of all those on earth.” Although the majority of species are found in the tropics, some are found even within the Arctic circle. A few species thrive in the desert, living only on cactuses. Others are purely aquatic. Two peculiar orchids flower completely buried in the earth, never seeing the light of day.
With such diversity, it would be expected that orchids also differ in size and appearance. And this is true. The flower of one species is just 2 mm (.08 inch) in diameter, and the whole plant could fit in a thimble. On the other hand, there are giants whose flowers measure up to 38 cm (15 inches) from tip to tip.
What color and shape do you prefer? The bountiful orchid family will supply your choice. Colors range from red, orange, yellow and green to purple, brown, white and even a rare blue.
As for shape, orchids show themselves as artists at mimicry. Some species resemble a lady’s slipper, moths, butterflies and wasps, pansies, kites and even birds in flight. Then there is “Beardie,” as the Australians call it, that is, the image of a bearded hillbilly. Another, in Peru, has what appears to be a laughing gnome in the center of the blossom. Or would you prefer the one that resembles a group of four braying donkeys? And the mimicry does not lie only in the appearance.
The scent also is used to deceive, with a view to pollination. One Mediterranean species resembles a female wasp and actually emits a wasplike odor to attract the guileless male. Certain species of orchids are pollinated by flies and so give off a heavy odor like that of decaying substances or dung, so as to attract the flies. Another species deceives a male bee by emulating an enemy insect, which the bee tries to drive away from his territory, thereby picking up the pollen from the flower. So perfect is the mimicry in one species that male bees actually attempt to copulate with the flower. The resultant contact transfers pollen from the flower to the carrier bee.
An ingenious method of pollination is that of the bucket orchid with its large flower and bucket-shaped lip. The bee, attracted by the scent, lands on the lip to pick up the scent. In its efforts to transfer the scent to its hind legs, the bee falls into the fluid-filled bucket. Its struggle to climb the steep waxy wall of the bucket is in vain. At last the bee spies another exit, a tiny tunnel leading from the bucket past the flower’s column on which is a mass of pollen. The bee scrambles to safety at last—but on its thorax sticks some of the pollen to be carried to the next flower. What wisdom is reflected in this interdependent relationship!
The Life Cycle of Orchids
This is similar to that of other flowering plants. The pollen, after being carried by the insect, is deposited on the female part, the stigma. It soon germinates and begins to grow toward the ovary. In about six weeks the pollen tubes enter the ovary and the male sperm unites with the egg. The fertilized egg develops and forms a mass of cells that will become the embryo. Enclosing this mass of cells is a dry outer coat that is so light that the seed can be carried great distances by the wind. Some of these seeds are as fine as dust. In fact, the book Botany states: “A single ovary of the orchid Cynoches contains 3,770,000 seeds and . . . more than 300,000 of them weigh but 1 gm!” With so many seeds, why are orchids not more prolific? The reason is that only a fraction of these seeds will germinate, since germination requires a certain fungus that is not always present.
In order to overcome this problem, a remarkable method of multiplication has recently been introduced. Called “meristem” culture (from the Greek word meaning “divisible”), this method is specially used for growing scarce, exotic hybrids. Growers simply remove the embryonic growth cell and culture it in a nutrient solution where it reproduces itself many times over. At any desired time, the cells can be separated into individual flasks where they will grow into seedlings identical to the one from which they were taken. By using this method, growers have been able to reduce the cost of orchids greatly and at the same time meet the seasonal demand for certain popular species.
Interestingly, most orchids found in the temperate zones grow in the earth, whereas those found in the tropics have no connection whatever to the ground. But, contrary to popular opinion, the latter are not parasites. They are epiphytes, merely depending on the host tree or rock for support, without deriving any nourishment therefrom.
Would you like to grow some of these beautiful, intriguing mimics? Happily, orchids are one of the easiest plants to grow and their cultivation is no secret. So you can probably find one or more that will easily adapt to your climate and environment. You can learn about their habits, needs and diseases through a library book or a local orchid association.
Today, the cut-flower trade in orchids is a multimillion-dollar business. But there is at least one orchid not used for decoration. The conquistadores noted that the Aztecs in Mexico added bits of an orchid’s seed pod to their drink. And when you eat vanilla ice cream, if the flavoring is not artificial, you too are probably enjoying the extract from the orchid Vanilla planifolia.
Whether we grow, wear or eat them, they remind us of the Creator’s generosity in providing variety in this family. As the psalmist said: “How many your works are, O Jehovah! All of them in wisdom you have made. The earth is full of your productions.”—Ps. 104:24.
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