Tuesday, 19 October 2010

Orchids III

Our most impressive orchid is a Butterfly orchid (Psychopsis papilio). I was smitten by the beauty and uniqueness of the species and bought one at a Swiss Orchid Society exhibition about ten years ago. The great majority of our orchids unfortunately do not survive past the third year so I was a bit undecided about purchasing one of the show plants costing several hundred francs. In the end I bought an immature specimen without a flower spike for around SFr. 40 but with careful nurturing it started flowering within a year. I can vouch for its hardiness as its survived us thus far(!), but they are also rewarding to cultivate as the spike flowers continuously (10 years now for the first spike) as well as producing additional spikes. Our plant currently has five spikes and I hope to see them all flowering simultaneously someday. Even allowing for a bit of "paternal" pride, its a magnificent specimen. It would probably be worth quite a lot to an orchid fancier but if we ever leave Switzerland I will try to donate it to the Basel Botanical Garden where it would be assured of a good home. It means a lot to us knowing that its in safe hands as this plant signifies a lot to us. My wife, S, made an incredibly beautiful painting of it (it was part of a series that she exhibited in London) that was awarded a Gold medal from the Royal Horticultural Society (wait, did I ever mention before that she is super-talented? Must have slipped my mind :-). We also have memories of our mounting excitement after the first spike sprouted, waiting for it to bloom. It somehow is bound up with the period from our early married life before our son was born, after which everything naturally changed forever.

A picture I nicked off the net (mine are all blurred) showing the butterfly-like features. From the side it resembles a large butterfly with spread wings, body and antennae. As they are perched on long, spindly spikes that sways with the slightest vibration, this really completes the illusion.

Our orchid. When the spike is camouflaged by surrounding vegetation it gives the impression of being suspended in mid-air.

Rather straggly looking but if all spikes are in bloom then this would resemble a flock of hovering butterflies.

The mimicry is more than a passing resemblance. The reproductive structures of the Psychopsis counterfeits an insect body complete with all three bodily segments and tiny knobs at the "head" to simulate mouth parts.

A closer view (also nicked off the web) of the pseudo-body. My camera sucks.

A little known fact is that the Psychopsis was responsible for launching orchidmania in Victorian times. As recounted by Eric Hansen in "Orchid Fever", the 6th Duke of Devonshire, William Cavendish (1790-1858), was so struck by a glimpse of it that he spent a large part of his fortune sponsoring orchid collectors in the tropics and constructing enormous heated greenhouses (imagine the cost of year-round heating to 30° with coal!). This made orchid growing immensely fashionable resulting in the collection and classification of many species. While undoubtedly many wild populations must have been plundered beyond recovery I think one has to take into consideration that habitat degradation would have occurred for other reasons anyway and its a small consolation that many orchid species were saved.

The mimicry is, as in the similar case of the bee orchid, related to pollinization. Using sexual deception, the bee orchid fools a bee into attempted copulation during which the pollen sacs adhere to the dupe which, upon realising its error, pulls up its pants embarrassedly, looks around to see no-one is looking and buzzes off shame-faced. Except of course that it does get fooled again (a possible reason why the mimicry has to be so convincing) thus ensuring successful cross-pollination of the orchid.

Ophrys bombyliflora

A soon to be heart-broken bee (he didn't call, he didn't write,...). Blokes who think they've had it bad being deceived by a Thai lady-boy should imagine what it must feel like to be fooled into fucking a plant.

Interestingly no-one has ever observed a Psychopsis being pollinated in a like manner in the wild, and indeed, as far as I know there aren't even any candidate Lepidopterans resembling the flower that would fit the role. As the species has a wide geographic range (from Trinidad to the northern coast of south America), it obviously gets by somehow but quite possibly the original butterfly on which the mimicry is modeled has become extinct. It seems rather poignant that so much evolution has gone into perfecting a deception that has now become obsolete.

Nonetheless one can still draw inspiration that nothing is ever futile. While the original raison d'etre for the mimicry is no longer functionally required, the beauty accrued by the form in its relentless evolutionary striving allowed it to conquer the hearts of humans, and we expend great investments of time and treasure in their care and propagation, and so long as we as a species exist, so too will they.

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