Nine Ways to Lure a Lover, Orchid-Style

Beauty, mystery and deceit—the Smithsonian’s collection of nearly 8,000 live orchids has it all

(James Osen)

Camouflaging Itself as an Insect

Psychopsis versteegiana
(James Osen)
Orchids of the genus Psychopsis are often called “butterfly orchids” because of their resemblance to the dazzling insect. “The three sepals [modified leaves] look like antennae sticking out of the top, whereas the three petals are more wing-like,” says horticulturist Tom Mirenda, of Psychopsis versteegiana (above). Even the column—the reproductive structure in the center of the flower where the male and female parts are fused together—looks like part of an insect, the head.

When a plant looks like an insect, one of two scenarios is probably at play, explains the Smithsonian’s orchid specialist. The flower might be mimicking a female insect so that an inexperienced male of the same species comes to the flower looking to mate. This ploy is called pseudocopulation. Or it might appear to be a particular insect in order to lure that insect’s predator or parasite. Either way, the duped insect is there to aid in pollination.

American botanist Calaway Dodson claims to have seen zebra butterflies, in the 1950s, attacking this Central and South American orchid species, as if to defend their territory. It is possible that pollen was transferred in this altercation. But no one has actually witnessed the pollination of this type of orchid in the wild. “It is a species that has been in cultivation for well over a century, and yet no one is really sure what pollinates it or why,” says Mirenda. “It is just amazing that such a mystery has lasted all this time.”

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