Suggestive, romantic, sexy orchids!

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 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. **This episode originally aired June 9, 2017.

Orchids blooming in Marilyn Powell's sitting-room. (Marilyn Powell)
I love orchids. I keep them in my house. Nothing fancy, just the kind I buy at my corner store. One morning, I came downstairs to find four orchids sending up shoots. Making buds. Those plants had been sitting there by the window, doing nothing, for years. I had no idea what colour they were or why they were starting to bloom. There and then I decided to get to know orchids, and their allure, a little better.

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!

Orchids blooming in Marilyn Powell's sitting-room. (Marilyn Powell)
Over the course of evolution, orchids learned how to modify their shape, size, and colour. They could be furry or smooth. They could have different spots and stripes — even within separate petals.  And their wiles aren't limited to the visual. As with many animals, scent is also a part of their repertoire of attraction. There are orchids that smell like cat urine, moldy cheese, dirty diapers, and, of course, rotting flesh. That one's used by an orchid in South Africa to tempt carrion flies to do its pollination. Of course, there  are orchids that smell delicious, too.

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. 

Orchids blooming in Marilyn Powell's sitting-room. (Marilyn Powell)
Deception is also part of the game. All orchids are out to attract their pollinators. But about 30% of them use deception in one way or another — how  they look, smell or feel to the pollinators. Some orchids known as "bee orchids" carry deception all the way to impersonation. They look like bees - so much so that their pollinators try to copulate with them. Right there on the — ahem —  'labellum' of the orchids. It's called "pseudocopulation." 

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.

Further reading:

  • 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.