It’s been raining for a week: not a deluge, just continuous and soaking. On Sunday it ‘s worn itself out and offers only an occasional splutter of drops. I grab my sturdy walking stick (once a slender spotted gum) and climb down the giant stairs into the bush below the house.
I know where the patch of wasp orchids is. I only have to follow the pipe leading down to the creek, although I make doubly sure by following my companion. He’s struggling with a long piece of recalcitrant piping, which doesn’t seem keen to cross the creek to become the frame of a garden dome.
There are three orchids in a little nook between logs. They are tiny, almost to the point of invisibility and I am grateful for my guide, whose orchid eyes are superior to mine once he disentangles himself from his snaking companion.
Two of the orchids are beginning to droop and fold, but the third one is at its peak. I contort myself to kneel within photographic reach. Maybe I’ll add a small kneeling pillow to my orchid-hunting gear. After all, they use them in churches, and my worship these days is in devotion to orchids. I notice with some horror that my camera battery is fading and snap frantically hoping to finish before it dies. The camera is my only hope of seeing the wasp orchid clearly because it is so small.
The leaves are the most visible part, glossy green after the rain. There are more leaves there than there will be flowers in this vegetative colony. They are there both immediately before and after the flowering, but they disappear between flowerings. As usual my camera doesn’t want to focus on both flower and leaves.
The flower is tiny, barely as big as my little fingernail. However, small is no barrier to intricacy and cunning. Orchids have been evolving for 80 million years, (so Ziegler claims – a Google search got swamped by sites for cultivationg orchids in your garden) and they’ve made good use of the time, many of them co-evolving with their insect pollinators. Their bilateral symmetry allows them to impersonate insects convincingly, which is exactly what the wasp orchid does, using pseudo-copulation to ensure the survival of the species.
The labellum which is covered in rich crimson calli resembles the body of the wingless female Thynnine wasp and thereby attracts the male Thynnine. What satisfies the orchid – the collection of its pollinia with its cargo of pollen to be transported elsewhere – has to leave the pollinating wasp frustrated. A frustrated copulater will go seeking sexual fulfilment elsewhere, with a bit of luck (for the orchid) with another wasp orchid, which it will then pollinate.
About a third of all orchids – 9000 species – use this kind of trick with varying degrees of sophistication and reward for the lustful insect. Such deception is just one of what Darwin calls the “beautiful contrivances” of orchids. And it happens on a hillside near Bodalla.
My library of orchid books is growing.
Christian Ziegler Deceptive beauties: the world of wild orchids is a collection of wonderful images, from Borneo, Panama, the Swiss Alps and even Australia, with text that discusses orchid distribution, evolution, and pollination. I owe it for my understanding of pseudo copulation and Annette for giving it to me.
I’ve also discovered, but not yet acquired, Charles Darwin’s cogitations on orchids: The Various Contrivances by Which Orchids Are Fertilized by Insects.