Orchids are dizzying in their diversity. Over the past 80 million years, some 25,000 wild species have taken root on six continents, in nearly every kind of habitat. Representing a full fourth of the world's flowering plants, there are four times as many orchid species as mammals, and twice as many as birds.
First row, left to right: Bulbophyllum mastersianum; Pheladenia deformis; Masdevallia coccinea; Trigonidium egertonianum; Regalia (Masdevallia) princeps; Caladenia (Leptoceras) menziesii
Second row, left to right: orchids Crocker Range Collection; Pterostylis sp.; Gongora quinquenervis, Anti-pollinator: a crab spider is lurking on a flower of Gongora, hoping to catch a bee or other insect; Bulbophyllum blumei; Lepanthes antilocapra; Lockhartia amoena
Third row, left to right: studio portrait of a crab spider orchid; Aspasia epidendroides; Chiloglottis sp. a sexually deceptive species.; Pterostylis sp.; orchids tenom agricultural centre; Calanthe pulchra
We animals don't give plants nearly enough credit. When we want to dismiss a fellow human as ineffectual or superfluous, we call him a "potted plant." A "vegetable" is how we refer to a person reduced to utter helplessness, having lost most of the essential tools for getting along in life. Yet plants get along in life just fine, thank you, and did so for millions of years before we came along. True, they lack such abilities as locomotion, the command of tools and fire, the miracles of consciousness and language. To animals like ourselves, these are the tools for living we deem the most "advanced," which is not at all surprising, since they have been the shining destinations of our evolutionary journey thus far. But the next time you're tempted to celebrate human consciousness as the pinnacle of evolution, stop to consider where you got that idea. Human consciousness. Not exactly an objective source.
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.