email a friend iconprinter friendly iconOrchids
Page [ 2 ] of 9

So let us celebrate some other pinnacles of evolution, the kind that would get a lot more press if natural history were written by plants rather than animals. (I suppose an article by a biped named Pollan will have to do.) For while we were nailing down locomotion, consciousness, and language, the plants were hard at work developing a whole other bag of tricks, taking account of the key existential fact of plant life: rootedness. How do you spread your genes around when you're stuck in place? You get really, really good at things like biochemistry, at engineering, design, and color, and at the art of manipulating the "higher" creatures, up to and including animals like us. I'm thinking specifically of one of the largest, most diverse families of flowering plants: the 25,000 species of orchids that, over the past 80 million years or so, have managed to colonize six continents and virtually every conceivable terrestrial habitat, from the deserts of western Australia to the cloud forests of Central America, from the forest canopy to the underground, from remote Mediterranean mountaintops to living rooms, offices, and restaurants the world over.

The secret of their success? In a word, deception. Though some orchids do offer conventional food rewards to the insects and birds that carry their pollen from plant to plant, roughly a third of orchid species long ago figured out, unconsciously of course, that they can save on the expense of nectar and increase the odds of reproducing by evolving a clever deceit, whether that ruse be visual, aromatic, tactile, or all three at once. Some orchids lure bees with the promise of food by mimicking the appearance of nectar-producing flowers, while others, as in the case of a Dracula orchid, attract gnats by producing an array of nasty scents, from fungus and rotten meat to cat urine and baby diaper. (Believe me, I've sniffed them.) Some orchids promise shelter, deploying floral forms that mimic insect burrows or brood rooms. Others mimic male bees in flight, hoping to incite territorial combat that results in pollination.

But perhaps the most clever deceit of all is offered by those orchids that hold out the promise of sex. And not exactly normal sex. Really weird sex, in fact.

Hoping to observe some of this plant sex, said biped recently journeyed to Sardinia, a windswept, mountainous, and lightly populated island 120 miles off the west coast of Italy that has long been known for floral biodiversity and human kidnapping. (Deceit is evidently very much in the air.) I went in search of one of the most ingenious and diabolical of orchids: the Ophrys. (Some botanists call it the "prostitute orchid.") I'd been eager to lay eyes on this orchid and meet its hapless pollinator ever since reading about its reproductive strategy, which involves what my field guide referred to as "sexual deception" and "pseudocopulation." What I learned of the prostitute orchid forced me to radically revise my estimation of what a clever plant is capable of doing to a credulous animal.

Page [ 2 ] of 9