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Orchids: The Catfish of the Plant Kingdom


Orchids have an undeniable allure. Just one look at the arrangement to the left is proof of that. What makes them so beguiling? Their color? Their delicacy? Their shape? For me, it’s all of this but also one thing more…their deception.


Okay, not all orchid plants fall into the category of evil genius, but those that do deserve recognition for their trickery. Several species look the way they look–and smell the way they smell and feel the way they feel–in the name of deception. Their specific brand of deception: mimicry.


When it comes to mimicry and plants, we often think about how animals mimic plants for camouflage purposes. (See the leaf insect to the right and its perfect duplication of a leaf right down to veins, discoloration and torn edges.) But the mimicry goes the other way as well. As an example, consider the Bee Orchid.


The bee orchid, named for the insect it is catfishing, has flowers that mimic the colors, textures and scents of a female bee. Unsuspecting, hopeful males try to mate with the blooms, and by the time they realize the deception, they are already covered in the pollen that will help the orchid reproduce, which they transfer to the faux females of the next plant.


The fiery reed orchid is also an opportunistic copycat. It disguises itself as another plant, one whose flowers promise copious amounts of sweet, sweet nectar. The catch–it has no nectar on offer. By the time its unwitting pollinator figures it out, the orchid’s pollen has already hitched a ride.


So, the next time you see a beautiful orchid, be sure to tip your hat to its craftiness as well.


And thus concludes the first post of Polycarp Flowers' Secret Life of Plants blog--a blog that aims to take our appreciation of flowers beyond the aesthetic by diving into the strange, cool and sometimes unbelievable stories of plants. To use a metaphor that speaks to a specific generation, think of it as a "Behind the Music" for plants. Yes, there will be fewer trashed hotel rooms and downward spirals, but plants do have some pretty wild stories to tell. Deception, strange partnerships, murder for hire, space travel--they are all alive and well in Kingdom Plantae.


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