My Favorite Weeds!

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Letting a few pretty weeds slip into a flower border is quite acceptable and is, in fact, an age-old technique. Source: wwwpinterest.com

As a gardener, I’m supposed to react to the presence of “weeds,” those plants that arrive spontaneously in our gardens, by pulling them all out. But the problem is that there are some “weeds” I actually like! I find them attractive and not really all that invasive.

I admit that they do self-sow a bit, appearing spontaneously where I would never have thought to place them, but—at least in my flower beds!—they don’t do so abundantly enough to choke out the other plants. I simply find them here and there, inserted among my other plantings.

If ever they do go too far and start to encroach on plants I want to keep, I just pull them out! All the plants described below are easy to yank out.

Here are some of my favorites:

Black-eyed Susan or Black-eyed Coneflower (Rudbeckia hirta)

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Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta). Source: seedsoftheprairie.com

A North American native of variable longevity (there are annual, biennial and perennial strains), the black-eyed Susan produces large yellow composite flowers with a distinctly raised black central cone, hence tis common names. Sometimes the flower bears a ring of dark markings around the cone. The whole plant, except the flower, is covered in short bristles, which is not surprising, since its epithet hirta means bristly.

The black-eyed Susan blooms over a long season, from mid-summer to mid-fall. There are many cultivated varieties (the perennial ones are often called gloriosa daisies) with yellow, orange or near-red flowers, sometimes double or with a green cone rather than a black one. It attracts bees and butterflies and, if you don’t cut it back in the fall, goldfinches will feed on its seeds over the winter. I find it self-sows quite modestly, yet it’s always there, somewhere, every summer.

You can readily find plants and seeds in garden centers and catalogs.

Dimensions: 8 to 36 inches x 12-18 inches (20-90 cm x 30-45 cm). Zone 3 (biennial and perennial varieties).

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Brown-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia triloba). Source: ルドベキア・タカオ, http://www.pinterest.co.uk

Other coneflowers sometimes also invite themselves into the garden, then remain by self-sowing. I particularly like brown-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia triloba), a short-lived perennial with much smaller but more numerous yellow or yellow and red inflorescences with a dark brown cone. It’s a very late bloomer, from September to snowfall where I live, but starting as early as July in milder climates. Both plants and seeds are quite readily available.

Dimensions: 4 ft x 8 inches (1.2 m x 25 cm). Zone 3.

Blue Vervain (Verbena hastata)

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Blue vervain (Verbena hastata) Source: shop.wildseedproject.net

This North American plant at first forms a rosette of narrow serrated leaves at the base, then several upright, multi-branching stems, capped with narrow spikes of mauve-blue (more rarely pink) flowers. Only a few are open at a time, in a circle around the flower spike, forming a sort of crown of bloom that moves upwards over the season. Flowering begins in July and continues until September. Butterflies and hummingbirds love it!

This is not a long-lived plant, but it reseeds modestly in sunny and not too dry gardens, so can maintain its presence. Wildflower specialists readily offer the seed if it doesn’t find your garden on its own. Sow it in the fall, because the seeds need a cold treatment in order to sprout.

Dimensions: 2-4 feet x 1 foot (60-120 cm x 30 cm). Zone 3.

Common Evening-primrose (Oenothera biennis)

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Common evening-primrose(Oenothera biennis). Source: Andreas Rockstein, plants.ces.ncsu.edu

Here is a plant that, I have to admit, sometimes self-sows a bit too much, but it is so easy to eliminate when it goes too far: just pull it out! Its roots give way readily and it never produces offsets: once it’s out, it’s out!

It is one of the rare North American native weeds to have conquered the globe, as it’s now abundantly naturalized on every continent except Antarctica.

As the botanical name biennis implies, it’s a biennial. The first year, it produces a low rosette of lanceolate, willowlike leaves and the second, a tall stalk of pale yellow cup-shaped flowers. They open in the evening and close the next day before noon … then start again each evening through the summer.

There is a lot of confusion about the true name of this plant: depending on where you live, the plant you’re seeing could be O. muricata, O. glazioviana, O. depressa or a hybrid between one or more of the above. I wouldn’t lose any sleep over that: even botanist can rarely tell them apart.

You’ll find seeds of common evening-primrose offered in several seed catalogs.

Dimensions: 1 to 5 feet x 12 to 14 inches (30-150 cm x 30-40 cm). Zone 2.

Dame’s Rocket (Hesperis matronalis)

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Dame’s rocket (Hesperis matronalis) Source: www.crocus.co.uk

This biennial or short-lived perennial has a long history as a medicinal plant used for treating “women’s diseases,” although these days, even herbalists no longer seem to have much use for it.

That’s how this widely distributed Eurasian plant made it to the New World. Brought over as a medicinal plant, it quickly escaped into the wild and is now firmly established pretty much throughout North America, where it is usually found in the somewhat humid environments, often on the forest edge or along streams.

The pink or white flowers (you often see the two colors mixing together) are produced in huge numbers from mid-spring until midsummer. A lot of people mistake it for garden phlox (Phlox paniculata), but dame’s rocket blooms far earlier. Also, its flowers have four petals while phlox blooms have five.

And what a perfume! In fact, it’s widely used in perfumery. The downside is that the flowers are scented only at night. It therefore makes an excellent cut flower: that way you can enjoy its fragrance in the privacy of your home even when it’s too dark to be in the garden.

This plant self-sows abundantly, but is very easy to eliminate if it goes too far.

This species is easier to find in seed catalogs than as a plant. Sow it abundantly: individual plants are rather scraggly; it needs company to look its best. Dimensions: 2 to 3 feet x 1 foot (60-90 cm x 30 cm). Zone 3.

Do note that dame’s rocket is considered a noxious invasive in a few states, so check local laws before you plant it. However, this is really a question of closing the barn door after the horse has bolted. It’s already so well established in most areas where it’s officially banned that the laws make no difference!

Forget-Me-Not (Myosotis spp.)

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Forget-me-not (Myosotis spp.). Source: Rasbak, nl.wikipedia

There are all sorts of species of forget-me-nots found throughout the Northern Hemisphere, both native species and introduced ones, so who knows which one has found its way into your garden? They all look pretty much alike anyway! The most common in garden settings is, however, most like woodland forget-me-knot (M. sylvatica), originally from Europe, as it’s the one most often offered commercially by seed.

You don’t need to know the correct botanical name to appreciate the beauty of the tiny blue flowers of forget-me-nots. To start with, so few flowers are true blue! The plants blooms early in the spring, usually when tulips are in bloom, then dies (it’s a biennial). However, next year’s seedlings are already growing strongly by then, so you don’t really notice the mother plants fading away, as their babies are already replacing them.

Of course, besides blue forget-me-nots, there are also varieties with white or pink flowers. I find the blue ones tend to dominate, the whites hold their own, but the pink varieties rarely persist very long in the garden.

Forget-me-not seeds are very easy to find, both in garden centers and seed catalogs.

Dimensions: 6 to 12 inches x 6 inches (15-30 cm x 15 cm). Zone 3.

Great Mullein (Verbascum thapsus)

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Great mullein (Verbascum thapsus). Source: bibprofessor.wordpress.com

This attractive biennial plant, which has dozens of other common names, depending on where you live, appears in my flower-beds from time to time, disappears, then reappears, adding a note of fantasy to the ensemble.

How could anyone treat this strikingly beautiful plant as an undesirable? With its beautiful rosette of fuzzy gray-green leaves the first year and its thick, upright stalk bearing bright yellow flowers the second, plus blooms over the entire summer, it’s always a star! Even when it dries up and dies at the end of the second year, becoming only a chocolate-brown stem still standing upright, at least that offers a bit of winter interest, notably when there is white snow all around.

There’s no use looking for plants of great mullein in garden centers: they never seem to carry it, nor do they usually sell its seeds. However, you can grow it readily from seed collected from wild plants in September or October in a field near you. Just sow them immediately or in early spring.

Dimensions: 3 to 7 feet x 2 feet (90-200 cm x 60 cm). Zone 3.

Musk Mallow (Malva moschata)

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Musk mallow (Malva moschata). Source: www.promessedefleurs.com

Like dame’s rocket, musk mallow is a Eurasian herb that was introduced to North America as a medicinal plant, but now grows abundantly in the wild.

The pink or white flowers look a bit like a child’s windmill. Each flower lasts only one day, but every morning brings new ones and that continues pretty much throughout the summer. In fact, it seems to bloom more in hot, dry summers than cool, moist ones. The blooms have a musky scent and are edible. The mid-green, deeply cut leaves are edible too, and quite attractive.

I know gardeners who can’t stand musk mallow because “it doesn’t stay where I planted it.” Indeed, it is short-lived (2 or 3 years) and therefore disappears quite quickly, but then reappears where you least expect it. For a meticulous gardener, it certainly will seem like more of a weed than an asset.

However, for laidback gardeners like myself, who prefer gardens with a little less control, musk mallow is a boon. It always seems to sprout sporadically here and there rather than in dense clumps that could overwhelm nearby plants and its cut leaves let sun get through to lower-growing plants. I just find it adds a bit of colorful spontaneity to my garden … and who doesn’t need a little spontaneity in their life?

Musk mallow seeds are fairly easy to find, both in catalogs and sometimes in garden centers.

Dimensions: 16 to 24 inches x 6 to 24 inches (40-60 cm x 40-60 cm). Zone 3.

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Common mallow (Malva sylvestris). Source: Alvesgaspar,Wkimedia Commons

Its taller cousins, hollyhock mallow (Malva alcea fastigiata), a musk mallow lookalike except it is twice as tall, and common mallow (Malva sylvestris), with darker flowers bearing distinct purple veins and peltate leaves, are also occasional spontaneous visitors, although more likely to arrive from neighboring gardens than from the wild, as they’re nowhere near as well established in fields and meadows as the ubiquitous musk mallow.

Even taller, to up to 6 feet (180 cm), are the lavateras, like tree mallow (Lavatera thuringiaca), yet another pretty self-sower.

Oxeye Daisy (Leucanthemum vulgare)

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Oxeye daisy (Leucanthemum vulgare). Source: plants.usda.gov

The oxeye daisy is so common in fields in temperate parts of North America, Australia and New Zealand that it’s hard to imagine that it could ever have been otherwise, but it is in fact an exotic species there, native only to Eurasia.

A neighbor lets the abundant daisies in his lawn bloom from start to finish and only begins to mow in mid-July, when they finish. It’s not such a bad idea; daisies are indeed beautiful. With their white composite flowers with a yellow disc, they are the very embodiment of a flower. If you ask a child to draw a flower, most will spontaneously draw a daisy!

Of course, the species grown in most gardens today is the Shasta daisy (L. x superbum), a hybrid with a complicated ancestry, and it generally makes a better garden plant, with more and often larger flowers over a much longer season (some varieties, like ‘Beckie’, will flower from early summer well into fall), but they don’t usually self-sow and can be short-lived. Oxeye daisies aren’t all that long-lived either, but maintain themselves by self-sowing. They can self-sow a bit too much, sometimes … but how you can you pull out such a pretty plant?

This is the only plant described here that spreads not just by seed, but by rhizomes, so it can be a bit harder to control.

While you can readily find Shasta daisy plants in just about any garden center or mail-order catalog, that can’t be said for oxeyes. If they don’t show up on their own, you may need to encourage them by purchasing seed from a wildflower specialist or moving a specimen to your garden from in a field near you. Not from a public park, of course, but otherwise, I don’t think removing one daisy would bother anyone.

Dimensions: 16-36 inches x 36 inches (40-90 cm x 90 cm). Zone 3.

Care?

It seems odd to speak of “care” with these plants, since all of them showed up in my garden on their own and simply grew on their own. Plus, they are considered weeds … and by definition, weeds take care of themselves! Also, it’s in the nature of weeds to be widely adaptable, taking just about anything, including soils both poor and rich, acid and alkaline, loamy, sandy, clay and rocky! However, the plants described above are all normally plants of meadows and fields, thus of at least moderately sunny environments, so will need full to at least partial sun in the garden.

If you sow them, clear a space of other vegetation so they can get a head start. If you transplant them from elsewhere, you don’t even need to amend the soil: they’re that tough! Water a bit more the first year if conditions are dry, but otherwise, just let them do their thing.

The important thing is to remember that you have to allow at least some seed production, or they’ll eventually die out. So, no deadheading or, at least, let at least few plants each year go to seed.


There you go! Eight “weeds” that I find particularly beautiful and useful, plants that may already have found their way into your garden. Try them letting them grow and see. And there are plenty of pretty weeds where they came from! If a plant shows up in your garden on its own, is attractive and doesn’t seem extremely invasive, perhaps you could learn to love it rather than brand it as a weed?

Learning to live with Mother Nature rather than fighting her? Maybe we could start a new trend in the gardening world?!20180802A wwwpinterest.com

The Titillating Sex Life of Orchids

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Orchid flowers make themselves as seductive as possible! Source: thecliparts.com, Clipart Library & pngimg.com

Flowers are all about sex. If they look good and smell good, it’s not to please us humans, but to better seduce their pollinators, because most need cross pollination (transfer of pollen from the flower of one plant to the flower of another of the same species) in order to reproduce. And orchids are the masters of sex when it comes to the world of plants.

How Plants “Do It”

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Wind-borne pollen (here from pine trees) can be so copious it coats everything. Source: www.asthmacenter.com

Many plants (conifers, oaks, grasses, etc.) produce extra-light pollen in copious quantities then liberate it massively into the air so it will be carried away by the wind. They do so in the hopes (yes, I’m going to go a bit anthropomorphic in this blog; it just makes the explanations so much simpler!) that a single pollen grain will accidentally land on a receptive flower of the right species. Wind pollination does work (otherwise, the species that do it would have gone extinct), but what a waste of resources! Sometimes the entire landscape is covered with a thin layer of pollen that will never serve the plant in any way.

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Most insect-pollinated flowers offer an abundant source of nectar to encourage repeat visits. Source: http://www.sarahplusbees.com

Other plants use a more reliable pollinator than the wind—usually an insect, although occasionally a bird (a hummingbird, for example) or a mammal—to carry their pollen from one flower to another. Many essentially offer an open bar: they give as a reward a generous amount of nectar and pollen and are none too picky when it comes to their suitors. Think of the common oxeye daisy, Leucanthemum vulgare, found in fields everywhere. It gives off a subtle, sugary, generic odor that attracts a wide range of insects and its florets just drip with nectar. It likewise produces more pollen that it needs so pollen-eating insects can have their share. The daisy can be pollinated by bees, flies, butterflies, beetles or wasps of many different species.

Scientists have a way of spelling things out quite bluntly and call such blooms promiscuous flowers. (If they hadn’t said it, I would have!) Such plants are counting on the likelihood that one of their many pollen-laden visitors will eventually land on a plant of the same species and that some of the pollen that stuck to its body as it fed will come free and ensure fertilization. That’s still a lot of nibbles and booze (oops, I mean pollen and nectar) to give away, but at least the investment is worthwhile if they achieve pollination.

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The yucca moth absolutely depends on the yucca for its survival (Yucca spp.) and the yucca can only be pollinated by the yucca moth. Source: Google Images

Other flowers are very specific … and orchids are often in this group. Pollinator-specific flowers come in a distinct color or form, have barriers to keep unwanted pollinators out or a scent that is only appreciated by one specific pollinator or at least a limited number of pollinators, thus forming a specific plant-pollinator interaction. A good example among non-orchids is the yucca moth (Tegeticula sp.), which pollinates only yuccas (Yucca sp.). The plant absolutely needs the pollinator and the pollinator can’t get along without the plant. Such plants don’t need to produce as much pollen and certainly not as much nectar as promiscuous flowers … but they usually do have to curry the favor of their pollinators by rewarding them in some way: pollen, nectar, oils, housing, etc.

Orchids, though, are not as charitable as most plants. Although their heavy pollen can’t be carried by the wind and they are almost always pollinated by insects (more rarely by mammals or birds), they are very stingy with their pollen. They don’t produce “quantities” of pollen, only two pollinia or pollen masses (singular: pollinium) per flower. And most are not particularly generous with their nectar either. Indeed, many produce no nectar at all.

Obviously, it’s vital for a flower with only two pollinia that the insect that picks up its ever-so-rare pollen deposits them on another orchid of the just right species. Thus, orchids will go to almost any length to please their specific pollinator, using clever combinations of colors, scents, shapes and textures to better seduce it … but many still don’t feed it!

Deceptive Flowers

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Deceptive orchids trick insects into pollinating them, but offer nothing in return. Source: scarletblack.ca & moziru.com

The way orchids get away with “offeriing the product, but not delivering the goods” is by mimicry. They try to replicate things their pollinator will find attractive: flowers, fellow insects … even rotting meat! They can do this by smell, taste, appearance, texture, etc. Their pollinator visits them expecting one thing, but gets … nothing in return. But it leaves with orchid pollinia glued to its body.

One estimate suggests that of the 20,000 species of orchids, about 8,000 are so-called “deceptive flowers”: they claim to offer something interesting to a pollinator, but don’t deliver. Orchids are not the only deceptive flowers, but they are by far the best at floral trickery.

Let’s look at a few examples:

Seducing the Orchid Bee

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The lip of the bee orchid looks like a female bee, complete with wings, the better to seduce the orchid bee into pollinating it. Source: Ophrys apifera, BerndH, Wikimedia Commons

The bee orchid (Ophrys apifera) is a terrestrial European orchid, also called (I didn’t invent this!) the prostitute orchid. It sets out to seduce a male bee of an appropriate species (different solitary bees in the genera Tetralonia and Eucera). To do so, the bee orchid starts by producing a flower that is physically quite similar to the female of the solitary bee. It has the same color (from a bee’s point of view; we don’t see colors the way they do), is the same size and even offers a similar shaggy texture.

But the coup de grâce is the perfume: the flower releases a pheromone (sex hormone) very similar to that of the female bee, but not quite the same. Tantalizingly different, you might say. Enough so that, if the male bee has to choose between the orchid and a female of his species, he often chooses the orchid!

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Male bee orchid with pollinia stuck to his head. Source: pinterest

When he lands and tries to copulate with the flower, his movements release the flower’s pollinia that end up literally glued to his head. Frustrated by the flower’s lackluster response, though, he leaves.

Bees may not be very intelligent, but they do learn. As a result, he’ll avoid the next few bee orchid flowers he encounters, remembering the disastrous results of his initial flirtation. But the further away he gets from the original flower, the more his memory fades and soon enough, he’s ready to try again. By now, though, he’s at a considerable distance from the original plant and this ensures that the cross-pollination that occurs will be between plants that are genetically distinct, thus avoiding any consanguinity. Just what the orchid wants!

When he lands on the new flower, the pollinia, if he’s wearing any, get caught in structures in the flower and are literally ripped from his head, then replaced by new ones.

Let’s hope he eventually finds a sweetheart of his own species before he dies of exhaustion!

The bee orchid is hardly an exception. Many orchids mimic the scent of female insects and induce the pseudo-copulation of males for their own reproductive purposes, but few mimic the appearance of the female quite as well as the bee orchid.

A Swarm of Pseudo-Bees

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The pretty flowers of many Oncidium orchids are designed to look like a swarm of bees. Source: sitecgdw.com

Some species of Oncidium in South and Central America have flowers that subtly mimic the appearance of local bees (genus Centris), but it’s not for the purpose of sexually attracting them. The small flowers are grouped in large numbers on arching stems that move in the slightest breeze, even to the point of seeming to shake.

Male Centris bees are very territorial by nature, and when they see what seems to be a swarm of dancing bees invading their space, they go on the attack, repeatedly dive-bombing the flowers … and when they do, they pick up pollinia by accident. After the exhausting but fruitless attack, they pull back, then discover another “flowery swarm” elsewhere, and attack that too, dropping off pollinia from the first orchid, thus ensuring fertilization, and picking up fresh pollinia. And before they learn better (and they will), this can happen four or five times, leaving the orchids pregnant and happy and the bees confused and frustrated.

Lady’s Slippers

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The swollen pouch of a lady’s slipper orchid (here, Cypripedium pubescens) is actually an insect trap … and part of an elaborate pollination scheme! Source: D. Gordon E. Robertson, Wikimedia Commons

Deceptive orchids aren’t limited strictly to the tropics. The beautiful lady’s slipper (Cypripedium spp.), found, in one form or another, throughout much of the Northern Hemisphere, even in the boreal forest … is definitely on the list of deceptive flowers. In other words, she really isn’t much of a lady!

Its lip, a mutated petal in the shape of a pouch, gives off a honeyed smell that implies an abundant supply of nectar. The insect (a fly, bumblebee or solitary bee, depending on the species of lady slipper: each has its own favorite) lands on the lip looking for the promised nectar. It wanders towards the greatest intensity of scent … to discover itself on the smooth inner surface of the lip. Thus, it slips to the bottom of the pouch where the sweet scent is strongest, figuring it has hit the jackpot, but no, there is no nectar at all. Worse, when it tries to leave, there are downward inclined hairs that prevent it from going back the way it came. The insect is now a prisoner.

Eventually, it discovers an opening at the bottom of the flower and tries to wriggle its way out. In doing so, it drops off any pollinia it was carrying from a previous lady slipper encounter, thus ensuring pollination, but the exit hole is so arranged that, when it does it free, new pollinia are automatically glued to it.

The lady’s slipper orchid is far from the only orchid to use this technique. It’s a fairly common ploy among deceptive orchids.

Stinky Blooms

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The disgustingly scented flowers of Bulbophyllum phalaenopsis look and smell like rotting meat so as to better seduce their carrion fly pollinator. Source: C T Johansson, Wikimedia Commons

The gigantic orchid Bulbophyllum phalaenopsis will surely never win any beauty contest. It has to have just about the ugliest flower of any orchid.

Its 15 to 20 reddish-purple flowers look like rotten meat and swarm with fleshy projections said to look like wriggly maggots. In addition, it emits a truly nauseating odor, one said to replicate the stench of a thousand dead elephants rotting in the sun. It does so to attract a female carrion fly looking for a place to lay her eggs. (This is called “brood site deception.”) As she does so, she inadvertently picks up the flower’s pollinia, then carries them off to another flower. When the fly’s eggs hatch, they simply die: there’s nothing there they can actually feed on.

Again, Bulbophyllum phalaenopsis is not alone. Many orchids, including the those in the foreboding-sounding Dracula genus, likewise attract carrions flies with an odor that seems unbearable to our nostrils, yet so enticing to flies!

Flower Mimics

Not all orchid flowers mimic female insects, marauding bees or dead elephants. Many disguise themselves as other flowers.

When an abundant plant has found the key to success with pollinators, it’s far from uncommon for a local orchid to learn to imitate it to take advantage of its pollinators.

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One of these three flowers is deceptive: it has nothing to offer its insect pollinators. Source: Guérin Nicolas, Mercewiki et Dick Culbert, Wikimedia Commons

In South and Central America, for example, there is a milkweed (Asclepias curassavica) and a lantana (Lantana camara) both of whose flowers share the same color combination (orange with a yellow center) and also the same pollinators—notably specific species of wasps and butterflies—and the two produce abundant nectar to ensure their favorite pollen carriers visit faithfully and thus transfer their pollen. However, a few species of Epidendrum—including E. radicans—have learned to mimic them by producing flowers of exactly the same colors … but with the difference that these orchids offer no reward whatsoever. The insects visit, pick up their orchid’s pollinia, and leave hungry and confused, the promised nectar simply being absent.

Again, there are hundreds of other orchids that mimic other flowers so they can “steal” their pollinators. It’s just something orchids do!

50 Shades of Orchid Sex

Obviously, there are many other deviations in the twisted sex life of orchids that I could have told you about:

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A trigger mechanism in the flower of a Catasetum shoots pollen with such force it can stun the pollinating bee. Source: catasetum-ian.blogspot.ca

  • A Catasetum that shoots its pollinia onto the head of its pollinator with such force that it is sometimes knocked unconscious or even killed by the experience;
  • Darwin’s orchid (Angraecum sesquipedale) so badly wants to preserve its precious nectar from nectar thieves that it stores it at the bottom of a one foot (30 cm) spur so that only its exclusive pollinator, a moth called Xanthopan morgani praedicta, whose probiscus is just long enough, can reach it;
  • Holcoglossum amesianum which, if its preferred pollinator doesn’t show up, self-pollinates in such a very physical way that I wouldn’t dare to describe it in a blog that could be easily read by children;
  • And many more!

Decidedly, orchids are the vixens of the plant world … and they seduce humans too! After all, what do we do when so they shamelessly offer themselves to all and sundry with their sultry flowers, but take them from the wild and grow them in our homes and gardens!

Sex sells: it always has!20180115A thecliparts.com, Clipart Library & pngimg.com