The world of orchids is replete with mystery and matrimonial manipulations
On my way to visit an exhibition of rare orchids at the Annexe Art Gallery in New Delhi’s India International Centre recently, I expected a veritable flower show, all prettiness and peace. How many of us associate orchids with much else, really?
A little under an hour later, after a walk along the exhibits in the company of two eminent botanists, Mohan Ram and Satish Kumar, I had been initiated into what felt at the time, a parallel universe. Except that it was a universe very much a part of my own, called nature in common parlance. And these two vastly knowledgeable experts became the lens through which I had the chance to peek at some of its mysterious and truly spectacular workings.
The common man will know orchids for their beauty and associate them with the several bouquet arrangements gifted to one’s dear ones on special occasions. Not many will know that they eat components of orchids in their chyavanprash every morning or in their occasional cup of vanilla ice-cream, because the vanilla pod too is an orchid.
As we stood before the collection of Indian medicinal orchids on one side of the room, Kumar noted that before 1850, the plants were, in fact, known primarily for their medicinal value. One variety on exhibit, dactylorhiza hatagirea, is even used as an aphrodisiac! As these revelations sank in, my mind was hardly prepared for the even more remarkable one that was to follow.
The ophrys apifera has the colour, shape and even the smell of a female bee and successfully reproduces through pseudo-copulation. The male bee is fooled into trying to mate with it and pollination is accomplished by deceit! What is more, for orchids of the genus ophrys as for all orchids in general, there is a specific species of insect paired with each specific species of orchid for pollination. Kumar spoke in this context of the Indian Lady’s Slipper orchids. Their almost exact likeness to actual slippers completely justifies the nomenclature.
Holding an exhibit in his hand, Kumar pointed out each part of the flower as he explained, “For the paphiopedeliua venustum, for instance, there is a particular insect that is attracted by a blue ultraviolet light that the flower produces at a certain time in the evening. The insect tries to land on its surface but loses its grip and falls into the flower, to come out of which it must go further inside and find the exit hole on the other side, in the process getting smeared with the pollinia.”
Ram paraphrased for the uncomprehending layman in me. “It is like a matrimonial column and match, really. The groom must be this size, come to the flower at this time, enter at this door and get out at the other.” Such is the miraculous working of nature! “We don’t know who taught the flower to look like a bee after all,” he went on. “In nature, only 35 per cent of orchids actually get pollinated. So there is frustration. They seem to have all kinds of devices and deceptions to counter it, therefore.”