By Athayde Tonhasca
Somewhere in Britain during the Victorian years, a four-spotted moth (Tyta luctuosa) landed on a pyramidal orchid (Anacamptis pyramidalis), intending to sip some nectar. The moth certainly didn’t expect to end up with its proboscis – the elongated mouthparts of butterflies and moths used for sucking – covered with blobs of pollen. But that was the least of the moth’s problems, as disaster loomed: the hapless wanderer was captured by an unknown collector and became a model for George B. Sowerby (1812-1884), the illustrator of Charles Darwin’s masterpiece about orchid fertilisation.
Those globules of pollen attached to the moth’s proboscis are known as pollinia (sing. pollinium). Each unit contains from five thousand to four million pollen grains, depending on the species. The grains are stuck together with pollenkitt, an adhesive material found in almost all angiosperms pollinated by animals. A stalk-like structure connects the pollinia to a gluey pad known as viscidium, and the whole assemblage is often referred to as a pollinarium.
Pollen grains lumped together in a sticky package are not easily carried away by water or wind. As Darwin learned from his observations and experiments, this is done by animal vectors, mostly wasps and bees (although moths, beetles, flies and birds do the job for reasonable number of orchid species). Having pollen grains in a single unit reduces wastage during dispersal, but it’s a risky strategy: a lost pollinium means no pollination at all. So orchid flowers have undergone dramatic morphological transformations to assure their pollinia are picked up by the right pollinator. ‘If the Orchideæ had elaborated as much pollen as is produced by other plants, relatively to the number of seeds which they yield, they would have had to produce a most extravagant amount, and this would have caused exhaustion. Such exhaustion is avoided by pollen not being produced in any great superfluity owing to the many special contrivances for its safe transportal from plant to plant, and for placing it securely on the stigma. Thus we can understand why the Orchideæ are more highly endowed in their mechanism for cross-fertilisation, than are most other plants.’ (Darwin, 1862, Fertilisation of Orchids).
What are some of these contrivances mentioned by Darwin? Orchids’ stamens (comprising anthers and filaments, the male reproductive parts) are fused with the pistil (which are the female reproductive parts: stigma, style and ovary) to form a structure known as a column. The anther (the pollen-producing organ) is located at the distal – away from the centre – end of the column, and the stigma (the pollen-receiving organ) lies close by. Directly below the column there’s an enlarged petal named labellum or lip, which often is noticeably different from other flower parts in its colour, markings, or shape. For nectar-producing species, nectaries are located at the base of the labellum.
So the stage has been meticulously set. The distinct labellum is a perfect landing strip for an insect attracted by the orchid’s rewards, be they real (nectar) or not (when physical or chemical decoys are deployed). The pollinator lands on the labellum, touches the tip of the column, and goes away with pollinia securely adhered to its body by the viscidium, which works better on smooth surfaces such as the eyes and mouthparts of insects and beaks of birds. When the pollinator visits another flower, the pollinia are likely to be transferred to the stigma. Sticky pollinia and viscidium ensure secure removal of pollen, minimal wastage during transit, and a high probability of deposition on a receptive stigma.
These morphological features have evolved independently in two plant groups: orchids (family Orchidaceae) and milkweeds (subfamily Asclepiadaceae of the family Apocynaceae). But pollinia are relatively more important for orchids; with more than 26,000 described species, they make up about 8% of all vascular plants and span a range of habitats in all continents except Antarctica; there are more orchid species in the world than mammals, birds and reptiles combined.
Orchids’ highly specialized ‘lock and key’ pollination system reduces the chances of pollen being picked up by the wrong flower visitor or being transferred to the wrong plant species; the selective adaptations towards the right flower-pollinator association must have contributed to orchids’ enormous richness and diversity of forms. It’s amazing what a dab of glue here and there can do.