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The Beauty And Deception Of Orchids

The Beauty And Deception Of Orchids

What is it about orchids that evokes such frenzied fascination? Even Charles Darwin could not resist them. Spellbound, Darwin conducted an extensive study on the orchid’s diversity and pollination tactics. As Bittu Sahgal, Editor of Sanctuary, puts it, “Orchids come closer to animals than any other plant.” Their evolution dates back about 110 million years when they shared space with the dinosaurs, and in the years since, key adaptations have put them on a unique evolutionary course.

One-third of all the 25,000 plus species of orchids are master deceivers! They have evolved near fool-proof methods to transport their sticky pollen packets called pollinia (the only group of plants to do so apart from milkweeds, which pack pollen in the form of packets) by luring pollinators such as bees, butterflies, moths, wasps and hummingbirds by deception, not by offering edible incentives like most other flowers. Some orchids mimic scents of an insect’s favourite food, or imitate female bee and wasp species, right down to texture and anatomy, to lure males into mating with them! What puzzled scientists is how such sexual strategies have proven to be so successful, even as the flowers choose to limit the resultant pollination service to select species. If the respective bee or bird species die out... so would the dependent orchid!

As it turns out, the strategy ensures an even more efficient pollen-transportation process.

Evolving such varied and intricate flower structures led to increased and rapid speciation in orchids giving rise to mind-boggling diversity!

Orchids have managed to colonise almost every kind of habitat on the planet, but most species prefer the tropics. What sets orchids apart from other flowering plants is their genetic make-up, which manifests naturally in the form of unique physical traits. The most important feature is that orchids have their male (stamen) and female (pistil) parts fused into one tubular column that sits at the centre of the flower.

Orchids grow on the forest floor, on other plants and trees (epiphytes), on mountainous rocks (lithophytes), and even underground (subterranean)! They aren’t fussy about where their source of nourishment originates – they soak in moisture from air, rain, soil and even decaying matter. Some species even engage in partnerships with mycorrhizae fungi that partly grow within the orchids’ roots and supply nutrients!

India harbours about 1,250 species of wild orchids, and each year new species are added! The country’s tryst with orchids goes back to when India was still a part of the Gondwana supercontinent. But, the future of India’s orchids could be in peril, with excessive deforestation and the international demand for wild orchids as ornamental plants.

Foxtail Orchid Rhynchostylis retusa

Photo: Bishan Monnappa

One of the most commonly-found orchids in decidious lowland forests of Asia, the foxtail orchid is commonly called so for its inflorescence, which resembles the fluffy tail of a fox. The unpollinated R. retusa flowers remain fresh for weeks, but will wilt within four-five days after pollination.

Fairrie’s Paphiopedilum Paphiopedilum fairrieanum

Photo: Udai C. Pradhan

The Fairrie’s paphiopedilum is now extinct in Bhutan, one of its only two range countries, the other being India. This critically endangered orchid is a lithophyte, but also grows as an epiphyte, which seeks nutrients from dead organic, decomposing matter on the forest floor.

Green-lipped Dendrobium Dendrobium ovatum

Photo: Avinash Bhagat

This epiphytic green-lipped orchid is native to the Western Ghats and Tamil Nadu in India. The plant sheds all its leaves just before the commencement of flowering.

Splendid Paphiopedilum Paphiopedilum insigne

Photo: Udai C. Pradhan

This endangered species’ range colonies are a matter of debate. It is native to Meghalaya in India and Yunnan in China. The demand to produce hybrid varieties of this orchid has led to its extensive collection from the wild, causing a dangerous dwindling in numbers. The flowers are designed to suit bees and hoverflies, which are its main pollinators.

Rigid Aerides Aerides ringens

Photo: David Raju

Rigid aerides, an epiphytic orchid, is found in the Western Ghats of India, Sri Lanka and the Andaman Islands. This diminutive species has a stout, short stem, which seldom branches. It can be seen in full bloom through spring and summer.

Roxburgh’s Habenaria Habenaria roxburghii

Photo: Nayan Khanolkar

Standing erect and about 30 cm. tall, this ground orchid can be easily distinguished by its round leaves that lie flat on the ground with pristine white flowers. It can be seen in shady undergrowth areas in parts of the Eastern Ghats.

Forest-Dwelling Calanthe Calanthe sylvatica

Photo: Udai C. Pradhan

This terrestrial orchid is found in the Western Ghats and Eastern Himalaya at elevations of 800 – 2,000 metres in damp evergreen and humid primary forests. Unlike most other species of the genus that are pollinated by bees, Calanthe sylvatica, along with some other species, has evolved to grow long spurs, which help in pollination by butterflies and moths.

Fox brush orchid Aerides maculosa

Photo: Avinash Bhagat

A dwarf orchid species, it is also known as the cat’s-tail orchid and is adorned with beautiful crystalline pink and magenta flowers, which grow to a length of around two centimetres. The inflorescence spikes grow to 25 cm. in length with the flowers growing neatly, in two vertical columns.

Bee orchid Cottonia peduncularis

Photo: Avinash Bhagat

This flower’s deep purple coloured lips’ resemblance to a ‘seductive’ female bee lures male bees. It is found in the semi-evergreen and moist deciduous forests of south India.

Doll orchid Habenaria crinifera

Are these little white ‘dancing’ dolls? The rare doll orchids prefer humid, tropical climates and are largely terrestrial, but can be seen growing on trees too. They are found in Sri Lanka and south India.

First published in: Sanctuary Asia, Vol. XXXVIII No. 6, June 2018.


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