Ways to Lure a Lover, Orchid-Style
Beauty, mystery and deceit—the Smithsonian’s collection of nearly 8,000 live orchids has it all
By Megan Gambino
1. Camouflaging Itself as an Insect
Orchids of the genus Psychopsis are often called “butterfly orchids” because of their resemblance to the dazzling insect. “The three sepals [modified leaves] look like antennae sticking out of the top, whereas the three petals are more wing-like,” says horticulturist Tom Mirenda, of Psychopsis versteegiana (above). Even the column—the reproductive structure in the center of the flower where the male and female parts are fused together—looks like part of an insect, the head.
2. Bold, Arresting Colors
Also known as Venus’s slipper orchid, Paphiopedilum venustum, found in Southeast Asia, uses its bold coloration to bait insects. Often, when insects land at the center of the flower, they fall into its cupped lip. In orchid terminology, the lip is one of the flower’s three petals and serves as a landing pad of sorts for its pollinators. “Inside, in tight quarters, insects have difficulty spreading their wings and flying out again and have to climb up the textured rear of the pouch,” says Mirenda. They escape—but in the process, the insects pick up pollen, which they ultimately bring to other flowers
3. Gimme Shelter
Male euglossine bees collect fragrances from flowers. “The males with the most complex array of fragrances get all the ladies,” says Mirenda. But when the bees land on male Catasetum orchids, they also get a swift wallop on the head. “The flowers basically mug their pollinator by shooting really large pollinia at them when they touch a little trigger switch in the flower,” says Mirenda.
After being whacked, as a reaction, the bees retreat to shelter—in this case, to the Catasetum’s female flowers (above). The helmet-like flowers, found in Central America, actually resemble the nests that the bees build. There, while feeding on nectar, the bees deposit the pollen.
4. Creating a Sticky Situation
The bucket orchid, Coryanthes macrocorys, also ensnares euglossine bees. When an unsuspecting male bee visits the orchid, looking to pick up a scent, it falls into the flower’s bucket-like lip. The orchid secretes a sticky liquid, which nearly drowns the bee. “Desperate to escape and unable to fly out due to its wet wings, it must squeeze out an escape hatch in the back of the flower,” says Mirenda. Conveniently, the orchid’s pollen is in that hatch and adheres to the fleeing bee.