All’s fair in love and pollination
Pink lady's-slipper, ON (Photo by NCC)
Humans and orchids have a long history together. The Totonic people of modern day Mexico and the Aztecs cultivated the seed pods of the vanilla orchid as flavouring, which is still used widely today. Orchids also provided medicine, food and adornment to many early Indigenous cultures across the globe.
Orchids are one of the oldest groups of flowering plants, celebrated for their beauty and extraordinary diversity. But these delicate plants are one of nature’s slyest tricksters. Orchids go to impressive lengths to attract unsuspecting pollinators to land on their petals — often with little or no reward.
With most plants, pollinators such as bees, flies and birds are rewarded with nectar or pollen for their services. But about one-third of the estimated 30,000 orchid species in the world rely on pollinator deception. Pollinators are lured by a wide array of colours or odours, without the sweet nectar treat.
Like many lady's-slipper species, pink lady's-slippers are food deceptors. These pink-hued flowers that resemble ballet flats attract bees and other insects with a fruity scent, but offer no nectar. The bees, unaware of the trickery, are attracted to the flower and enter the lip and get trapped. After a few minutes trying to escape the flower, the bees start to make their way under the stigma until a passage through the back of the flower opens. To get out, they have to walk right past the stamens of the plant that smear sticky pollen on the upper side of the bee’s thorax. When the bee visits the next flower, it first leaves pollen on its stigma before picking up a new load of pollen, and fertilizes the plant. Sneaky!
Another way orchids deceive pollinators is through odours. The plants produce an alluring scent that mimics pheromones released by females, attracting males. The lovesick pollinator will then pollinate the flower while attempting to mate with it.
The ram’s head lady's-slipper, which gets its name from the sac-like shape of its lip petal, which resembles the head of a charging ram, are amazingly long-lived, and only reach maturity at 10 to 16 years of age. Ram’s head lady's-slippers are pollinated by small- to mid-sized bees that are attracted to its sweet, but deceptive, scent. Once fertilized, the plants seal up to exclude additional insects.
Unfortunately, orchids face many threats to their survival, from habitat loss, to trampling and collection, to invasive species. Orchids are very sensitive to disturbances, and many species grow under specific and unique conditions that can easily be altered or destroyed.
The Nature Conservancy of Canada (NCC) is working to protect orchid species across Ontario, specifically on the Saugeen Bruce Peninsula, by protecting key areas of habitat. You too can help protect these delicate and important species by being aware of where you are stepping and staying on the trail to limit disturbance. Keeping your pets on a leash, picking up after them and not removing wild flowers from natural areas are all ways that you can help ensure the continued survival of these beautiful and rare plants.
NCC would like to thank and recognize the members of the Southern Ontario Orchid Society for their support of conservation. Since 1992, the Southern Ontario Orchid Society has donated over $70,000 to support NCC's work in protecting orchid habitat across the province.
Eastern prairie white-fringed orchid
Eastern prairie white-fringed orchid, ON (Photo by NCC)
- 0.5–1 m tall
- Narrow, long leaves
- 10-40 whitish flowers that are 1.8–2.5 cm wide
- Flowering occurs late June to late July; seed capsules ripen in late August/early September
Range in Canada: Ontario, centred around the Great Lakes
Habitat: Wet prairies, fens and bogs
Showy orchis/showy orchid
Showy orchis, ON (Photo by Esme Batten)
- 10-15 cm tall
- Dark green basal leaves
- Up to 15 mauve to pink and white flowers
Range in Canada: Ontario, Quebec and New Brunswick
Habitat: Deciduous, mixed mature or semi-mature forests
Ram’s head lady's-slipper
Ram's head lady's-slipper (Photo by Wikimedia)
- 5-10 cm tall
- Stem is slender and hairy with 3 to 4 deep green leaves
- Solitary greenish-brown and white flowers with dark red veins
- Flowers from May to mid-June
Range: Southern Ontario, reaching from Manitoba east to Nova Scotia.
Habitat: Moist coniferous forest