Friday June 09, 2017
Orchids: A love story
Suggestive, romantic, sexy orchids! It turns out they're even sexier in their own world. Wily, deceptive, manipulating: get ready to travel between history and science, how we humans think about orchids and who they really are in nature among themselves. A celebration of all things orchid with contributing producer Marilyn Powell.
It turns out that their sexy reputation was there, right at the start. In ancient Greece, wild orchids grew on the shores of the Mediterranean. Underground, they had two bulbs or tubers on their stem. So the Greeks took the visual clue and called them 'orchids,' from orkhis, Greek for 'testicle'.
In his book Orchid: a Cultural History, Jim Endersby explains how people ate orchid roots in a dish, ground them up and drank them in wine or goat's milk — to incite lust or suppress it; to have male children or female children or none at all. In ancient Thessaly, they were rumoured to use orchid roots to both cure and cause venereal disease. Pity the poor orchid for being so misunderstood! There are still orchids blooming on the shores of the Mediterranean, and if you look at what they're doing, a separate, intricate world is revealed. The flowers are advertising sex alright — just not with us in mind!
They're all designed to lure bees, wasps, ants, flies, butterflies, hummingbirds, among others, into landing on one of those petals. Right on the lip, or — ahem — 'labellum'. Everything depends on who their pollinator of choice is and where the orchids live. It wasn't part of their plan that they should be shipped in from exotic places. Or cultivated locally for our pleasure.
You could say that orchids know the drill in their habitats. The pollen of one orchid is carried to another orchid of the same species, where the seeds are fertilized. The deed is done through cross-pollination: straight from the stamens, the male part of one orchid, to the stigma, the female part of another. All thanks to the pollinator in this three-way relationship.
As in most affairs of the heart, things can and do go wrong. Here's a stunning example: a bee penetrates an orchid deeply enough for the bundle of pollen to be attached to his back by an adhesive of the orchid's own making. But the bee never gets to carry its cargo from one orchid to another. "Coitus interruptus", as it were.
But while the bee may have been shortchanged, we aren't. Orchids delight our senses and dazzle our mind. They are surprising, intricate — always pursuing their need to survive in their own right in the wild. And when they bring their passion into our homes — we feel it, even if it's just a gesture towards their wild nature. I recently discovered that two more of my orchids are about to bloom. It must have happened while I was sleeping. — Marilyn Powell
Guests in this episode:
- Carin Bondar is a writer, television presenter and "biologist with a twist," as she puts it, and the author of the book Wild Sex.
- Mark W. Chase is a botanist and Senior Research Professor at Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. He's a well-know expert on orchids.
- Jim Endersby is a Reader in the History of Science at the University of Sussex. His latest book is Orchid: a Cultural History.
- Curtis Evoy is Supervisor of Conservatory and Horticulture Display, City of Toronto.
- Dana Hamilton is a designer at The New Leaf Florist in Toronto.
- Ruth Miller is a writer, actor, and lover of orchids
- Susan Orlean is an author and a staff writer for The New Yorker. She's the author of The Orchid Thief, which is featured in the program.
- Lynda Satchwell is an orchid grower at Allan Gardens Conservatory, Toronto.
- Wild Sex: The Science behind Mating in the Animal Kingdom by Carin Bondar, Pegasus Books, 2016.
- Orchid: A Cultural History by Jim Endersby, the University of Chicago Press, 2016.
- The Orchid Thief: A True Story of Beauty and Obsession by Susan Orlean, Ballantine Books, 2014
- Deceptive Beauties: the World of Wild Orchids by Christian Ziegler, with an introduction by Michael Pollan, University of Chicago Press, 2011. Ziegler photographs in our slide show courtesy University of Chicago Press. Special thanks to Kristen Raddatz and Katryce Kay Lassle, University of Chicago Press.
- Orchid Fever by Eric Hansen, Vintage Departures, 2000.
**This episode was produced by Marilyn Powell & Sara Wolch.