Orchid of the week! Catasetum incurvum



One of the strangest of all orchids is turning heads at the Hawaii Tropical Botanic Garden this week. These bizarrely beautiful, and deliciously fragrant, green blossoms emerged from the robust pseudobulbs this species produces in the perfect light within our Orchid Garden. These however, are the FEMALE flowers of this exotic South American species. Occurring in hot and steamy, but seasonally dry forests of lowland Ecuador and Peru, this species, like most all other member of the genus, make two completely different types of flowers on separate stems that carry male or female sexual parts! You can see what the male flowers are like by looking here:

One might ask, why do these orchids have flowers with separate sexes when most other flowers have both male and female parts? As well you might! Well it is a long and crazy story! Are you ready to get your minds blown? Catasetums are pollinated by Male Euglossine bees also known as Orchid Bees. They are beautiful bees with iridescent, often metallic colors of Blue and Green. Male Euglossines often toil from before dawn till after dusk collecting fragrances from flowers all around the forest. This is because female Euglossines are extremely picky about which males are worthy to mate with. Only the males that work the hardest and collect the most complex array of fragrances get any attention from the ladies! It is for the females, apparently, an indication of genetic fitness and apian virility! Like good pecs and firm buns for humans!

One of the best and most effective fragrances comes from the Catasetum flower and young male bees seeking to mate, literally scrape the blooms for the fragrant oils they secrete and dab it on themselves (like Axe Cologne!) in the hopes of impressing desireable females! But this task has its hazards! The male flowers have a tendril-like trigger switch in their center. While foraging for the irresistable perfume the bees touch the trigger and WHAM! a giant wad of a pollinarium shoots out of the flower at lightning speed, and wallops the hapless bee! After having been effectively mugged by a male flower, the bees are reluctant to visit another as you might imagine! So, the female flowers evolved to look completely different thus deceiving the poor male a second time. The traumatized males are attracted to the female flowers as they have more fragrances to collect and don’t look as dangerous!

Catasetums produce these different flowers based on how hot and sunny it is where they are growing. Plants in the sun will usually produce female flowers while those in the shade tend to make male flowers. In their natural habitat, most species undergo a 2 or 3 month dry season with virtually no rain during which time they lose all their leaves and flower spikes emerge, synchronously timed with the hatching of young orchid bees. Here at HTBG, the Catasetums get year-round moisture and can bloom at almost any time of year! You must come and see them for yourself! _ Tom Mirenda

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