Awkward Orchids

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Awkward Blooms: How Lizard Orchids Can Cower The Most Ruthless Gardeners

There is a saying among gardeners that in order to be really good at it one needs to be ruthless. If this is true, and I believe it is, then I am at a distinct disadvantage because when it comes to tearing out plants that have the temerity to sprout in the wrong place I’m pathetic.

Himantoglossum hircinum orchids (Credit Mike Alexander)

At no other time of year is my lack of spine demonstrated more clearly than now when the orchids are in flower. The lawn that until recently was fairly un-contentious is now randomly pierced by dozens of orchids. The once disciplined rolling green patch now resembles something designed by Salvador Dali on one of his less clairvoyant days.

It all began some years ago when I spotted a clump of half a dozen lizard orchids,Himantoglossum hircinum, popping their noses out in one corner of the lawn. Instead of doggedly mowing them down as befits the gardener in search of the perfect field of green, I went around them and let them flower.

They are not particularly attractive plants and their parfum is somewhere between goat and cat urine but they are orchids nevertheless. Gradually over the years, sensing, perhaps, the lack of steel in my gardening character, the orchids have expanded their territory and – apparently tipped off as to what a pushover I am – they have now been joined by others of their kith and kin. Mowing, which at any other time of year takes just an hour, has now turned into an intricate obstacle course as I weave between pyramidal orchids, spotted orchids and the occasional and intermittent bee orchid and alas, the once impeccable manicured lawn might now be mistaken for a mini golf putting course.

Lawn orchids and pollinators (Credit Mike Alexander)

There are some 30,000 species of orchid found on every continent including within the Arctic Circle. In addition because they hybridize so easily there are at least another 60,000 hybrids. Most of them grow in the tropics and are epiphytic, growing in trees. Surprisingly, although they are one of the two biggest plant families on the planet, they have very little economic value other than as ornamental plants.

The one major exception to this is the vanilla orchid of Madagascar, see video clip below:

In France we have terrestrial orchids that grow only in the ground and are dependent on a delicate mycorrhizal relationship with underground fungi. The tiny seeds dropped by the orchids often carry no food source of their own and in their early stages of development they must have these fungi to decompose food, dissolving it to make it accessible to the developing plant. The shallow limestone soils in much of France provide good conditions for the fungi thus this making life easier for the orchid. This soil is also why we are blessed with such an abundance of truffles.

Orchids are one of the oldest plant species. The science journal Nature once thought they dated back 15 to 20 million years but now with the advent of genetic sequencing suspect they may in fact go back 76 to 84 million years meaning they may well have been dined upon by dinosaurs. It is that long evolutionary history that makes orchids so diverse and interesting. Many of them are pollinator specific in that they are only pollinated by one animal or insect. In Australia theRhizanthella slateri grows entirely underground never seeing the light of day and is pollinated by ants while in Madagascar the deepest flowered orchid Angreacum sesquipedia is pollinated by a hawk moth that has evolved a thirty centimeter long proboscis to access its nectar.

Our own pyramidal orchid Anacamptis pyramidalis is pollinated by butterflies and Burnet moths. When the butterfly extends his proboscis in the hope of finding nectar the orchid snaps a pollen attachment onto the top of the proboscis like a small pince nez. The butterfly is unable to remove the pollen which attaches rather like one of those little electronic clamps found on supermarket CD’s and designed to stop you walking out without paying.

Vanilla Orchid Madagascar  (Credit Screen Grab) YouTube)

When the butterfly eventually gives up and lands on another orchid to continue feeding the orchid unclamps the pollen as easily as the supermarket checkout clerk removes the security tag and the life cycle starts afresh.

These terrestrial orchids should not be removed from the wild and they are difficult to transplant but if enjoying them in their natural environment is not good enough for you there are a few specialist nurseries around France that can supply many of the different available varieties.

Writer: Mike Alexander
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