Monday, January 7, 2013

Inside the Spider Room of Doom

Species name: Paphiopedilum sp.

Common name: paph orchid, orchid

Location: UWO Greenhouse

Ah, orchids. The bane of my existence. OK, not really. But I know they would be if I ever attempted to keep one alive; I can just see it ending in another botanical murder. I admire them in greenhouses, not on my desk.

Orchids are a rare (actually, not so much...) and wonderful group of plants. There are actually several hundred groups of plants that we refer to colloquially as "orchids", the Paphiopedilum being just one of those groups. These are commonly called the "lady slipper orchids" due to their shape. This plant of unknown species name (it is probably a hybrid) is one of about 80 species in the group, and is native to the tropical rainforest somewhere in Southeast Asia. Each species in the group is native to a relatively small range within that broad geographic area, but hybridization events readily occur at the boundaries of the species ranges. This would (and rightfully should) raise the question of "so are they really different species if they can hybridize?" Good question! I would say no, but obviously I've been overruled by a couple of centuries of botanists significantly more knowledgeable about orchids than I am!

The greenhouse at Western grows a huge variety of orchids, all of them being a bit different. They might be completely different species (and in some cases, in different groups within the orchid family) or just different hybrids or cultivars, but most of them are just named with their genus and the species is left undetermined. I was going to do a whole series of blogs about "the orchids of the greenhouse", but all of the plants are in what I call the Spider Room of Doom where, you guessed it, a ridiculous number of spiders live in all corners of the room because it's so hot and humid. Anyone who knows me knows that I hate insects, so going too far into that room is out of the question. What? I'm allowed to have rules. :)

Orchids are a fantastic group of plants for two reasons. The first is because of the cumulative native ranges of all species of what we consider "orchids". This native range actually stretches from pole to pole, all the way around the globe. To me, it's absolutely incredible that any one group of plants has managed to completely master the ability to live in literally every ecosystem around the world. They are by far not the most dominant species in any one ecosystem (in fact, most species of orchid around the world are critically endangered either due to wild hunting, climate change, habitat loss, or a combination of all three), but they're present. The second reason why orchids are so amazing is because of their flower shape. There are some orchids that mimic wasps and bees, some that mimic birds, others that mimic pheromones ("sex hormones") of insects, and some that absolutely reek, all in an attempt to attract one specific pollinator. In fact, orchids are a fantastic example of co-evolution: when the single species of insect that pollinates the single species of orchid changes in some way, the plant changes with it to rope it back into (in a sense) their mutualistic relationship. It's an evolutionary arms race to ensure the partnership of both species!

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