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)

A Powerful Smell

Aerangis distincta
(James Osen)
Hot environments are not exactly conducive to pollinator activity. So African orchids called Aerangis distincta make the most of the cooler night hours. Beginning at dusk, the white orchids, made ever more radiant by the moonlight, emit a powerful fragrance that attracts moths. When a moth lands on or hovers above the orchid’s lip, it sticks its tubular mouthpart, called a proboscis, into the lip and down a long nectar spur that dangles from the blossom.

Only hawk moths with a proboscis of just the right length and curvature can suck up nectar from the bottom of the foot-long drinking tube. This specificity prevents cross-pollination between different orchid species. “Charles Darwin crystallized his theory of evolution after observing a similar orchid, Angraecum sesquipedale,” says Mirenda. “He theorized the existence of a moth with a 12-inch-long tongue, based on the flower’s morphology.”

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