Field of Science

Orchids are fun

Orchids, more precisely, orchid flowers are fun.  Who can argue?  First a couple of caveats.  Most orchids have pretty small flowers; only a few have big, really gaudy flowers, and people are more familiar with these for the obvious reason that they are the ones most commonly cultivated and pinned on prom dresses.  Second, a lot of cultivated orchids are hybrids, artificial things, and therefore no matter how fantastic looking the flower, it's a flower that only exists as a curiosity; it doesn't function in nature.  What could be duller to a floral biologist?  People's fascination with the unnatural contrivances has always puzzled the Phactor because real species have some truly fantastic floral forms, and these are shaped by natural selection to be functional, to interact with their pollinator is sometimes a very specific manner.  This is one of the reasons why making hybrids is so unchallenging; pollinator specificity and pollinator behaviors are the isolating mechanisms that keep even closely related species from swapping genes, so without other isolating mechanisms it's easy for humans to hand pollinate them and generate hybrids sometimes with fantastic floral forms, but forms not adapted to do anything.  The photography displayed here is enough to make you envious, but you don't expect less form National Geographic.  (Prosthechea fragrans is shown here.) 

4 comments:

mr_subjunctive said...

Considering that particularly interesting or hardy hybrids can be reproduced millions of times over through tissue culture, and the genes involved get spread around in other hybrids, I'd say they're totally adapted to do something: they're adapted to make orchid enthusiasts go ooooohhhhh, I want to buy that.

And, since the hybrid orchids don't reproduce without a highly-specialized pollinator (us, or at least the orchid-culture industry), I really fail to see the point of the distinction you're making.

A.L. Gibson said...

the wild orchids of the Midwest (most specifically Ohio) have long been my favorites and specialty in the botanical world. I've always found the cultivated and hybrid forms to be unappealing and am only attracted and interested to the real, natural and purpose-driven species in our native soil. when people hear that I'm a botanist with a deep heart for orchids they seem to always want to talk about greenhouses, shows and growing them. it could completely be natural bias but I think our native species blow anything in your local garden/flower shop out of the water in both beauty and importance.

mr_subjunctive said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Justin said...

Hybridizing is, for many, artistic and pursued as an aesthetic endeavor. These people are horticulturists and generally not scientists (although some cross over). A botanist who knows the whos and whys (or at least wants to) is rarely persuaded by the aesthetics of non-bees and non-birds.