The weird sex life of orchids


Bellbowrie orchid picture from JLeahy ‘s garden. September 2015.©

Those who love orchids know their exotic blooms and unusual colours. Some have certain places and conditions they like to grow in. But did you know of the weird sex life of orchids?

While I was away, one of my orchids bloomed for the first time. I had been wondering when she would flower. Perhaps her deception to attract pollination or her ‘voodoo’ did not work for the 12 months I grew her. This orchid (pictured above) is one of several I received from my sister-in-law Ufi Leahy’s garden in Kenmore, before she returned to PNG. I was ecstatic to find each clump – wherever I had planted them, bloomed.

The great majority of animal pollinated plants secure the services of their animal pollinators by providing food rewards such as nectar or pollen. However, orchids are exceptional in that perhaps as many as one-third of the 30,000 or so species achieve pollination by deception. That is, they lure animal pollinators to the flower by false promises of food, but do not provide any. They are all show – just for the sex and no rewards for their visitors. Most of orchid species are ‘food deceptive’ – falsely advertising the presence of food by bright colors and sweet scents.

Orchid in the tree. JKLeahy©

Here is an interesting article from the Guardian.

We animals don’t give plants nearly enough credit. “A vegetable” is how we refer to a person who has been reduced to a condition of utter helplessness, having lost most of the essential tools for getting along in life. Yet plants get along in life just fine, thank you, and had done so for millions of years before we came along. True, they lack such abilities as locomotion, the command of tools and fire, the miracles of consciousness and language. But the next time you’re tempted to celebrate human consciousness as the pinnacle of evolution, stop for a moment to consider exactly where you got that idea. Human consciousness. Not exactly an objective source.

Ophrys eleonorae and Ophrys lupercalis, a wild hybrid orchid, whose pollinator, a male solitary bee, is engaged here in pseudocopulation. Photograph: Christian Ziegler/Minden Pictures

So let us celebrate some other pinnacles of evolution, the kind that would get a lot more press if natural history were written by plants rather than animals. I’m thinking specifically of one of the largest, most diverse families of flowering plants: the 25,000 species of orchids that, over the past 80 million years, have managed to colonise six continents and almost every conceivable terrestrial habitat, from remote Mediterranean mountaintops to living rooms the world over. The secret of their success? In a word, sex. But not exactly normal sex. Really weird sex, in fact. Click here to read more.

Series 1 of 2 Open. Forest Mantis Orchid (Caladenia attingens) Margaret River area, Western Australia
Series 1 of 2 Open. Forest Mantis Orchid (Caladenia attingens) Margaret River area, Western Australia

National Geographic: The genus name of the forest mantis orchid (Caladenia attingens) is derived from the Greek words calos (meaning beautiful) and aden (meaning glands), referring to the colourful labellum and the glistening glands that adorn the middle of flower. Their shape and colour mimicking female insects, attracting male insect pollinators. I like this wasp orchid because it also looks like the Bird of Paradise.

12 thoughts on “The weird sex life of orchids”

  1. How great for you to come home and find on of your orchids in bloom. They’re such beautiful flowers. A wonderful and informative post, Joycelin, and the images are lovely – and they’re all so different.

    Liked by 1 person

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