Orchids: Masters Of Deception

17:13 minutes

With over 25,000 species, orchids are the most diverse family in the plant kingdom and have adapted to a variety of niches, such as the tropical rainforests of South America and the tall grass prairies of Nebraska. Their brightly colored petals and fragrant aromas draw the attention of both pollinators and home gardeners. Marc Hachadourian, curator of the New York Botanical Garden’s orchid collection, and SciFri video producer Luke Groskin discuss how these fascinating flora have mastered the science of deception and adaptation.

[Learn more about orchids at our spring garden party.]

Segment Guests

Luke Groskin

Luke Groskin is Science Friday’s video producer. He’s on a mission to make you love spiders and other odd creatures.

Marc Hachadourian

Marc Hachadourian is the director of the Nolen Greenhouses for Living Collections and the curator of the orchid collection at the New York Botanical Garden in Bronx, New York.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. Spring has sprung, which means it’s time to get your blooms in order. And one of my favorites is the orchid. But there’s more to this fascinating flora than just a pretty flower and a sweet-smelling bloom. Orchids, if you didn’t know, are masters of deception and adaptation. They can mimic insects. They can produce all sorts of chemicals. And there’s even an orchid that can shoot pollen out of its flower, all in the name of a pollination.

And that is the topic of our latest Macroscope video. I’m going to chat all about orchids with my next guest, Luke Groskin, our video producer, and Mark Hachadourian. He’s the director of the Nolen Greenhouses for Living Collections and the curator of the orchid collection at the New York Botanical Garden, which is having its orchid show winding up this weekend. Right? Mark?

MARK HACHADOURIAN: Yep. This is the last weekend of the orchid show. It ends on Sunday. So definitely get up there soon.

IRA FLATOW: OK, Luke, let’s talk first about these orchids that drew you into the latest Macroscope video.

LUKE GROSKIN: Yeah, I suppose you can say I am a little bit like a pollinator or a green thumb. I got sucked in myself. I was intrigued by this story or this idea that there’s a plant that uses trickery in order to fuel it sex drive, which is a fascinating idea. And these orchids do that.

IRA FLATOW: Sounds like people.

LUKE GROSKIN: It does, doesn’t it? So they use manipulation and trickery. But more than that, it’s a story of evolution, of the power of evolution. These orchids can’t see. And they have limited sensory. And yet, they’re able to manipulate other animals into becoming pollinators for them. And I find that absolutely fascinating.

IRA FLATOW: And its in your latest video. And you shot a lot of beautiful flowers for this video. Did you have a favorite?

LUKE GROSKIN: Oh, yeah, definitely. My favorite by far was an orchid known as the Darwin’s Star orchid. Actually, it’s right next to you.

You can see. It’s a big white orchid. And it’s got this long green tube coming out of the back. Now, that long green tube, when it was presented to Darwin, he thought about it. And he was like, what on Earth would that be for?

So that green tube is actually a nectar spur. And Darwin theorized that there was a moth with a 12-inch tongue that would stick its tongue all the way down there to get the nectar and in the process, pollinate the orchid. A lot of people at the time thought, that’s ridiculous. But it turns out he was right. There is a moth that actually is the pollinator of this orchid. And it’s a wonderful example of co-evolution.

IRA FLATOW: And somebody discovered it years later?

LUKE GROSKIN: Yes, actually, maybe, I think, about a decade ago, they actually filmed the orchid actually– excuse me, the moth sticking its tongue all the way down the nectar spur.

IRA FLATOW: Your video also talks about orchid deceptions. What is the trickiest orchid that you came across?

LUKE GROSKIN: Oh, the trickier methods that they use, they’re all very, very tricky. I guess the one that stuck out to me was the Monkey Face orchid, which looks exactly like it sounds. It looks like there’s a little baboon staring back at you if you look at this flower. And at the center of it is this little lip, which is a modified petal at the middle of the orchid. And if you look at that closely, that little petal looks like a mushroom. And this orchid actually exudes the odor of mushrooms in order to entice fungus gnats to come over and deposit its eggs on it. Now, the fungus gnats, they can’t deposit their eggs. So the orchid is just tricking them into becoming its pollinator.

IRA FLATOW: It’s tricky. I’ve seen this picture before because I’m into orchids. And it always looked to me like it was Dracula.

LUKE GROSKIN: It does. It looks like a lot of things to us.

IRA FLATOW: Who you ask, right?

LUKE GROSKIN: Yeah, well, if you ask a fungus gnat, it’s a mushroom. If you ask us, it is Dracula. And if you ask the internet, it’s a monkey face.

IRA FLATOW: Mark, you’ve worked with this orchid. Does it smell like a mushroom?

MARK HACHADOURIAN: Absolutely, without a doubt. Looking at the flower, of course, we see that face first and foremost whenever you see it. But then when you inspect it just a little bit closer, you do notice that the lip has even the little gills that you would see on the underside of a mushroom cap. And when you get your nose in there, it smells exactly like fresh mushrooms, without a doubt.

IRA FLATOW: Mark, you’ve said that one of the cruelest orchids is the Bumblebee orchid. Why do you say that?

MARK HACHADOURIAN: Well, I’ve always jokingly referred to it as nature’s cruelest trick because these orchids that are terrestrial orchids native to Europe have evolved a pollination mechanism in which they mimic the female of the species of insect and actually trick the males into mating with the flowers. The insects actually mate with the blooms, and in doing so, inadvertently pollinate them. So it’s an even crueler deception than looking like a food resource, but instead, looking like, I guess, the most beautiful mate you’ve ever seen.

IRA FLATOW: Our number, 844-724-8255. We’re talking about of my favorite subject, and that’s orchids. There are orchids that smell horrible to us, but are pretty attractive to flies, right?

MARK HACHADOURIAN: Oh, absolutely. There are orchids that smell like you should be checking the bottoms of your shoes in that they smell like all sorts of horrible things, from rotting fish to feces, you name it, all for the effort and purpose of attracting a pollinator. I even brought a couple with me today.

IRA FLATOW: Let’s see what you’ve got here.

MARK HACHADOURIAN: I have this tiny little orchid called pleurothallis ornata, which has these small, triangular purple blooms. But if you look closely, the edges of the flowers have these tiny white little tassels that are moving at just the slightest little breeze. And what those tassels are is those little ornaments on there are actually mimicking the maggots that would be feeding on that type of whatever that orchid smells like, and in doing, so attract other insects to visit and lay their eggs. And even though that bloom is very, very tiny, if you get up very close and smell it, you can get a whiff of what it smells like. It’s kind of fishy and gross at the same time, a little bit of low tide in there, I think.

IRA FLATOW: [SNIFFS AND LAUGHS] Yes, that’s a good way of of describing it. That’s a good way. What else have you brought with you?

MARK HACHADOURIAN: I’ve got probably one of the smallest orchids in our collection. This is a plant called oberonia, which has these tiny fan-like leaves. A friend of mine described it as sort of a living cat toy in that the flower spikes are covered with all sorts of fuzz and little hairy bits. And the flowers themselves are amongst the smallest flowers of any plant in the world, with blooms only one millimeter in diameter.

IRA FLATOW: So these cattails are the flowers.

MARK HACHADOURIAN: Those are the inflorescence. Each one of those tails has about 500 to 600 individual blooms on it. So if were to got hold that plant in the palm of your hand, you’re holding just under about 2,000 individual orchid flowers in one hand.

IRA FLATOW: Can you grow an orchid from the flowers?

MARK HACHADOURIAN: It would be grown from seed.

IRA FLATOW: From seed.

MARK HACHADOURIAN: You can do that. It’s a bit of a complex process because most orchids require specialized relationship with fungi for those seeds to germinate. So it’s best if you’re going to try to find an unusual plant to go to a nursery where it’s already started. It’s a little bit of a laboratory experiment to grow orchids from seed.

IRA FLATOW: That’s probably why, back in the day, I mean, around World War II when people were getting interested, they said, oh, you can’t grow an orchid. It take so much skill in the laboratory, a glass beaker and things like that.

MARK HACHADOURIAN: Exactly, so now science has actually cracked the biology and reproduction of the orchid, so much so that what used to take essentially decades for a plant to reach blooming size, now through horticultural scientific research, we can get blooming-size plants in three to four years. So we’ve cut the time down considerably.

IRA FLATOW: All right, what have you got next for us?

MARK HACHADOURIAN: Probably my favorite orchid, which I was so happy to see opened in the greenhouse. This is called catasetum. And if you look in the center of the flower, there’s a little figure sort of standing there. It looks like a hobgoblin. And if you look, his arms are crossed. What those arms are are triggers.

Now, I’m going to have a little fun here. Take your finger, reach into the flower, and touch those triggers. Just press on them lightly. Press forward.

IRA FLATOW: Oh, press forward. Oh, look at that! Look at that! It came right off on my finger.

MARK HACHADOURIAN: And what that orchid does it actually shoots the pollen out of the bloom, so just as the pollinator visits, with just a simple touch of that trigger, it fires the pollen and attaches it to the back of the insect with a very strong glue. So if you tried to pull that off your finger, it’d be stuck quite well.

IRA FLATOW: You’re right. Wow. I’m going to leave it there.

MARK HACHADOURIAN: So a very efficient transfer of genetic material there. And actually, it fires with enough force that sometimes it even knocks the insect out of the flower.

IRA FLATOW: Is that a good thing?

MARK HACHADOURIAN: Well, it makes the insect– in some ways, it probably forces him to go visit another bloom so cross-pollination can occur. But they’re so forceful, that some of these catasetums, the pollen can actually shoot up to two or three feet away from the plant itself. Really, quite a bizarre, but very fun pollination mechanism. It really does show the diversity of what happens in this plant family.

IRA FLATOW: What is it about the orchid that attracts the pollinators?

MARK HACHADOURIAN: Obviously, color, pattern, fragrance, any number of aspects, depending on what pollinator you’re trying to attract. For instance, if your pollinator is a hummingbird, you want a long, tubular flower, bright colors that would fit the bill of that hummingbird. And as we discussed earlier, if your pollinator is a fly or carrion-feeding beetle, you want to smell like something really nasty and gross, maybe have spots or hairs or warts that really mimic something that they would be interested in.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, and I know from keeping some orchids in my home that sometimes they have a schedule. They don’t smell the same during the day.

MARK HACHADOURIAN: No, it all depends on when the pollinator is active. For instance, the Darwin’s Star orchid, since it’s pollinated by a night-flying moth, during the day, there’s almost no noticeable fragrance. But even if you put the plant in a dark room or after dark, the fragrance is overwhelming. It’s a combination, some people describe it, of jasmine and moth balls, all to attract that night-flying moth with that 12-inch tongue.

IRA FLATOW: I’ve smelled orchids that smell like chocolate.

MARK HACHADOURIAN: Absolutely, there’s orchids that smell like roses, jasmine, chocolate, coconut. Any fragrance that you can dream up, there’s probably an orchid out there that smells exactly like it.

IRA FLATOW: What else? You have a whole bunch of them here.

MARK HACHADOURIAN: Oh, we’ve got a number of different things. We’ve got a bunch of wonderful miniature orchids here, some platystele here with about 600 or 700 blooms the size of a head of a pin. We’ve got a bulbophyllum, a genus of orchids famous for having foul smelling blooms, with this sort of jellyfish-looking bloom with these long, hanging tassels. And you can see, all of the spots, hairs, warts on there, all to attract a fly because flies, in one of their pollination syndromes, they are attracted to movement in their flower. So if you were going to get up there and smell that, that one’s not as bad as it could be if it was in the sun.


But it’s still pretty rank.

IRA FLATOW: Well, what’s interesting about this one is that the flower looks longer than the plant. The actual body, is it hanging upside down?

MARK HACHADOURIAN: That’s exactly– the way you’re holding it now, hanging with that pendant flower spike and those long tails, hanging almost about eight or nine inches down is exactly the way it would grow in the wild.

IRA FLATOW: Wow, because it’s beautiful. And the fact that it has these three flat– these are the flowers.

MARK HACHADOURIAN: Those are the blooms.

IRA FLATOW: And they have long, long tails on them. Is that a reason?

MARK HACHADOURIAN: It’s all to provide some movement, a visual cue for the pollinator to be drawn closer and closer to the bloom, hopefully getting to the right areas to transfer pollen from one plant to another.

IRA FLATOW: Wow, OK, you have right here, closest to me. I recognize that. Is that a paphiopedilum?

MARK HACHADOURIAN: That is a paphiopedilum.

IRA FLATOW: I was close!

MARK HACHADOURIAN: Close. And what’s great about these is we’re familiar with the temperate members of this group, the cypripedium, the lady slippers. But this tropical lady slipper even has a deceptive pollination mechanism. Some people have theorized, if you look in the center of the bloom, there’s a glistening, shiny, sort of shield-shaped structure. And what that mimics is aphids, the presence of aphids. So the flies that would feed on the sweet, sugary secretions left by those aphids are drawn in, thinking that there’s something there and then inadvertently pollinate the flower. Just one more way that orchids have evolved these amazing and deceptive pollination mechanisms.

IRA FLATOW: Talking with Mark Hachadourian. He’s curator at the Orchid Collection at the New York Botanical Gardens on Science Friday from PRI, Public Radio International. How many orchids from the– I know you have the show, the orchid show, going on now. How many are exhibited and how many do you store away?

MARK HACHADOURIAN: Well, our permanent collection is actually one of the largest institutional orchid collections in the world, now with about approximately 7,000 individual specimens. And that’s the behind-the-scenes collections that will be displayed year round in our permanent displays. But right now, the orchid show is going on, its last weekend, at the New York Botanical Garden, in which we have probably about an additional several thousand, about 5,000 to 6,000 plants, in bloom.

Of course, we do supplement our collection for the orchid show, bringing in beautiful plants of all sorts of different color, patterns, fragrance, but also dotted throughout the show will be special and unique plants from our collection.

IRA FLATOW: Let’s keep looking. Is that a dendrobium?

MARK HACHADOURIAN: The little yellow is actually–

IRA FLATOW: No, the one right there.

MARK HACHADOURIAN: This is the part of the catasetum.


MARK HACHADOURIAN: They have these huge bulbs, these water storage organs, that have evolved like the stems of a cactus with this three-foot hanging inflorescence on it. An unusual orchid here, this little oncidium, sometimes referred as Bumblebee orchids has these great, bright yellow flowers, which actually mimic another group of plants. So not only can orchids mimic other animals, insects. There are orchids that even mimic other flowers because the group of flowers that it mimics are famous for having oil glands that certain types of bees are attracted to. And if you actually look close at the bloom, you can see at the center, there’s a shiny dot, which mimics these oil glands. So they even trick plants into thinking that they are other plants.

LUKE GROSKIN: Well, Luke, is this the kind of stuff you saw?

LUKE GROSKIN: Oh, yeah, absolutely. Actually, by the way, you still have pollen all over your hands.

IRA FLATOW: I know. I’m not picking it off.

LUKE GROSKIN: It’s still stuck to your hands.

IRA FLATOW: It’s actually really stuck on there.

LUKE GROSKIN: So yeah, I was fascinated. What draws all these people in the to an exhibit like this? I’ve given orchids as presents to my mom. And I’ve seen you obsessing over orchids at Science Friday offices.

IRA FLATOW: But your video up there on our website is fantastic. And you learn so much from it. And one of the things that I knew about but I never saw and never realized is that vanilla, vanilla comes from orchids.

LUKE GROSKIN: That’s right. I had no idea. One of the great things about orchids is that they have these tiny, tiny little seeds, like really, really tiny. And so when you’re consuming vanilla, you are actually consuming the seeds. Those tiny little black dots, those are orchid seeds. The shouldn’t call it vanilla ice cream. They should call it orchid seed ice cream. I don’t know if the marketers would go for that. But every time you eat vanilla from now on, you’re going to be thinking of orchids.

IRA FLATOW: Do you have a vanilla?

MARK HACHADOURIAN: Oh, absolutely. We have vanilla vines growing in the conservatory. We pollinate them every year because, of course, the bee that pollinates vanilla isn’t there, so we try to hand-pollinate them to get some vanilla beans for our own use.

IRA FLATOW: We talk a lot about orchid plants. But there’s something called an Orchid Mantis.

LUKE GROSKIN: Oh, yes, yes. There’s a species of mantis that mimics– well, it looks to us like an orchid. As it turns out it, it’s not exactly mimicking an orchid. But it mimics a bunch of other flowers. It’s like a generic orchid flower mimic. And it lives in these flowers where it hunts insects. And you can actually learn about that, as well, on sciencefriday.com.

IRA FLATOW: And we have as part of your video. And you can see that at sciencefriday.com/orchids. And this mantis, this praying mantis, looks exactly like a colorful orchid.

Thank you all for– And you’re not going home with any of these plants. They’re all staying here.

MARK HACHADOURIAN: Maybe I’ll let you choose one.

IRA FLATOW: [LAUGHS] Right. Mark Hachadourian is the director of the Nolen Greenhouse for Living Collections and curator of the orchid collection at the New York Botanical Garden. And thank you for taking the time–

IRA FLATOW: A real pleasure to be here.

MARK HACHADOURIAN: –to be with us today. I want to thank our digital team, whom we never get to thank every week. I want to start doing it this week. Julie Leibach, Chau Tu, Brandon Echter, Daniel Peterschmidt. BJ Leiderman composed our theme music. And our thanks to our production partners at the studios of the City University of New York.

If you missed any of our program, go to our website at sciencefriday.com. And you can see our Macroscope, the orchid video is up there. And it’s your last weekend to catch the orchid show at the New York Botanic Garden in the Bronx, as we say. The New York Botanical Garden in Brooklyn is the Botanic Garden. And the Bronx is the botanical garden.

Have a great weekend. Go see those orchids. I’m Ira Flatow in New York.

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Alexa Lim was a senior producer for Science Friday. Her favorite stories involve space, sound, and strange animal discoveries.

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