- Associated Press - Saturday, January 24, 2015

WASHINGTON (AP) - What luck! A newly hatched butterfly, we’ll call him Bob, spots an exceptionally sexy female on a nearby tree. He flutters to her, but she’s strangely inert. “What’s the matter, baby?” he says, rubbing his abdomen against hers. Bob’s buddies point and laugh. “Dude, you just tried to mate with a flower,” they say.

You can hardly blame him. Psychopsis orchids look a whole lot like butterflies, and they probably evolved to trick gullible bugs into pollinating them through pseudocopulation. These deceptive lovers are just one of the hundreds of orchid varieties in the National Museum of Natural History’s “Interlocking Science and Beauty,” the 20th annual Smithsonian orchid exhibition, which opens Jan. 24.

“The orchid’s game is seduction, and it works on people too,” says Tom Mirenda, one of the exhibit’s curators. “What better strategy on a changing planet than to become the pet of the most successful creature?”

Why are the flowers so beguiling to humans? The secret may lie in their bilateral symmetry - meaning there’s only one way to fold them in half so that one side matches the other. (Most other flowers have wheel-like radial symmetry, with many possible midlines.) This gives orchids a face-like appearance, or maybe something more suggestive.

“They seem to have a personality,” Mirenda says. “I’ll leave it to your imagination, but a lot of men see women in these flowers.”

Orchids recently became the top-selling potted flower in America, outpacing poinsettias. This is largely due to advances in cloning technology, Mirenda says. Orchid growers will take a particularly nice plant - perhaps one with a robust color and lots of flowers - and create tens of thousands of genetically identical plants. To illustrate this, the Smithsonian exhibit will include a “green wall” of cloned phalaenopsis orchids.

“Cloning has made it possible to mass-produce orchids,” Mirenda says. “They’ve become a commodity.”

While human-cultivated orchids are doing well, many wild orchid species are in danger of extinction, due to habitat loss and climate change. They are vulnerable because they tend to occupy incredibly specific niches, often targeting their seduction to a single pollinator, Mirenda says.

For instance, the Angraecum sesquipedale orchid, which will also be on display, keeps a dollop of nectar at the bottom of a narrow, 20-inch long tube. When Charles Darwin saw this flower in 1862, he hypothesized that it must have evolved to attract a moth with an equally long proboscis. Twenty years later, scientists discovered a likely contender, Madagascar’s X. morganii praedicta moth, but it wasn’t until 1992 that biologists witnessed these behemoths feeding.

Other orchids attract bees with shiny petals that look like a good source of nest-building resin or by offering a perfume that the insects can use to seduce lovers of their own.

“Every orchid has a story, and it’s usually a pretty fascinating one,” Mirenda says.


Information from: The Washington Post, https://www.washingtonpost.com

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