At first blush, orchids seem dainty. We adore their sweet scents, exquisite flowers, and even delicate taste, in the case of Vanilla‘s seed pods.
Few people know the real meaning of the word ‘orchid’: TESTICLE.
Yes, you read that right. Vanilla is anything but vanilla.
This is not some obscure plant family with a dirty name. Orchids are literally ~28,000 species, 10% of the world’s seed plants. And they’re named after gonads.
But why? In order to find an orchid’s namesake, you’ll need to look where the sun don’t shine.
These evocative lumps are tubers that serve an adaptive purpose. Many orchids live on tree branches or in other dry environments where they don’t have easy access to water and nutrients year-round.
When parts of an orchid seasonally die back, the orchid stores its carbohydrates in two starchy tubers to sustain itself until the next wet season. The result is basically a pornographic potato. Humans can eat orchid tubers as a starchy snack; they’re called chikanda in Zambia.
So how did such a naughty name become official? It turns out that the name has a long, hard history. The Latin word for orchid was orchis, which comes from the Greek orkhis, meaning “testicle”.
The Greeks weren’t the only ones to have dirty thoughts about monocots. In Middle English, orchids were called “ballockwort”.
When a French botanist, Antoine Laurent de Jussieu, coined the official family name Orchidaceae in 1789, he based it on the Latin. And when John Lindley published School Botany in 1845, he shortened Orchidaceae to “orchid”.
Humans aren’t even the only ones to think that orchids look a little naughty. Some orchids trick bees into pollinating them by looking like an attractive mate.
Ophrys sphegodes flowers have fake “wings” and “antennae”, and emit chemicals that mimic the sex pheromones of female bees.
Male bees attempt to copulate with the flowers, not knowing that they’re being duped by a plant. As the bees go from flower to flower trying to get laid, O. sphegodes‘ pollen spreads. This process is literally called “pollination by sexual deception”.
The same strategy is used by other tricky testicles against many of the world’s insects.
For example, the orchid Chiloglottis trapeziformis attracts wasps with pheromones…
… and Lepanthes glicensteinii tricks the heck out of fungus gnats.
So the next time you’re at a botanical garden or visiting your grandma, you should announce that orchids are deceptive testicles spread by horny insects. Everyone will thank you for your knowledge of ~plant anatomy~!
Sources & Further Reading:
Blanco, M.A., Barboza, G. 2005. Pseudocopulatory Pollination in Lepanthes (Orchidaceae: Pleurothallidinae) by Fungus Gnats. Annals of Botany 95: 763-772.
Chase, M.W., Cameron, K.M., Freudenstein, J.V., Pridgeon, A.M., Salazar, G., Van Den Berg, C., Schuiteman, A. 2015. An updated classification of Orchidaceae. Bot. J. Linn. Soc. 177: 151-174.
Gaskett., A.C. 2011. Orchid pollination by sexual deception: pollinator perspectives. Biol. Rev. 86: 33-75.
Harper, Douglas. “orchid.” Online Etymology Dictionary, 2018. https://www.etymonline.com/word/orchid
Karron, J.D., Ivey, C.T., Mitchell, R.J., Whitehead, M.R., Peakall, R., Case, A.L. 2012. New perspectives on the evolution of plant mating systems. Annals of Botany 109: 493-503.
“Orchidaceae.” Tropicos.org. Missouri Botanical Garden, 2018. http://www.tropicos.org/Name/42000388
Masters, Suzanne. “There is a snack food that is mostly made out of orchid.” BBC Earth, 24 Nov. 2016. http://www.bbc.com/earth/story/20161123-there-is-a-snack-food-that-is-mostly-made-out-of-orchid
Schiestl, F.P., Ayasse, M., Paulus, H.F., Löfstedt, C., Hansson, B.S., Ibarra, F., Francke, W. 1999. Orchid pollination by sexual swindle. Nature 399: 421-422.
Schiestl, F.P., Peakall, R., Mant, J.G., Ibarra, F., Schulz, C., Franke, S., Francke, W. 2003. The Chemistry of Sexual Deception in an Orchid-Wasp Pollination System. Science 302: 437-438.
Special thanks to Mary and James for the naughty pic.
Orchid tuber picture from Challe and Price 2009, Chiloglottis trapeziformis picture from Karron et al 2012, fungus gnat montage from Blanco and Barboza 2005.