Mark Your Calendar: the 74th Annual Oregon Orchid Show & Sale is April 22-23, 2017 in Portland, OR

Orchid pollination

Orchid Propagation:

Orchids have done a lot of evolving to perfect the art of propagating. In this section of the website, we’ll be exploring how orchids propagate in the wild! ┬áBefore we go there, we should answer a very basic question on orchid pollination that many people ask: Do Orchids Have Pollen?

DO ORCHIDS HAVE POLLEN?

The presumption is that people’s primary interest in this is related to allergies. Without getting too technical we’ll answer with a definite “yes” followed by an immediate qualification. You see, orchids don’t have pollen that will float through the air like grass or fall on your table like lilies. Their pollen, which is very small and sticky, is all contained in a “pollen packet” that is intended to get stuck on a bug or another pollinator in order to be transported to another orchid plant. This packet doesn’t travel through the air and into people’s noses so allergies are not an issue with orchids. So if you have plant allergies, you can still go to an orchid show, sniff the blooms and have no worries!

ORCHIDS IN THE WILD

As orchid-fans, we give a lot of attention to orchid blooms. In the wild, dependance on blooming and pollinating is not necessarily the first line of defense when it comes to survival. As a matter of fact, orchids are far from being annual plants – they are perennials (plants that live through multiple seasons). They can live indefinitely without blooming or doing much of anything at all.

In the wild, most orchids grow high in the tree canopy. They grow along tree branches, rooting in moss and debris that has settled on the limb. Simple division is one way that orchids multiply. The orchid can outgrow the branch and break off in the wind, landing on a nearby branch. This simple means of multiplying is not typical for plants that heavily depend on blooming and pollinating for their propagation. Interestingly, this process of division is how most orchid collectors would grow their collection.

As we all know, orchids DO bloom and blooming is for the purpose of propagation. Orchids are probably the trickiest plants in the forest. Because they don’t have pollen that floats through the air as the younger plant families do, orchids are HIGHLY dependent on having a pollinator work for them. Therefore they have evolved to create very functional flowers that serve to trick a very specific insect, bird or even mammal to collect the sticky pollen packets (pollinia) from one orchid and carry it to another.

Consider some orchid pollination tricks:

Mastigion putidum

Mastigion putidum

  • Mastigion putidum(syn. Bulbophyllum putidum) has a hinged lip that uses the pollinator’s weight to flip it into the pollen packets
  • Phalenopsis, also known as the “moth orchid” hangs its moth-like blooms from the tree branch. When the wind blows it flutters like a moth and real moths fraternize with it, eventually collecting pollen packets and transferring them to other blooms
  • Ophrysspecies look almost exactly like the bee species that pollinate them. Different Ophrys are pollinated by different bee species and the flower mimics that exact species in look. But their trickery doesn’t stop there! Their fragrance includes some of the pherimones the bees use to attract mates and the males actually collect this pherimone

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    Ophrys species (a "bee orchid")

  • The Chinese orchid, Cymbidium serratum, is pollinated by wild mountain mouse, Rattus fulvescens. The flowers use both ordor and colour as attractants, and provide the lips as a food reward for the pollinators. The mice pollinate the flowers during their endeavour to eat the lips
  • Bulbophyllum phalaenopsisproduces a large, odd looking bloom that mimics rotting flesh with maggots (that wiggle in the wind) to attract flies, which act as pollinators. It doesn’t only mimic carrion in look – it also smells like rotting meat
  • Paphiopedilum sukhakulii

    A close up of a slipper orchid (Paphiopedilum sukhakulii)

    Most slipper orchids(Paphiopedilum, Phragmipedium, Cypripedium, etc.) have downward-pointing hairs in their pouch that allow insects to crawl down into the pouch but not back up. This is not to devour the creature like a pitcher plant would do, but to guide them out via the only path that doesn’t have these hairs – this path forces the insect to come into contact with the sticky pollen packets