All orchid flowers, even the glamourous and expensive tropical kinds, are built to the same three point plan.

They have three petals and three sepals: sepals are the modified leaves that wrap around and protect a flower when it is still a bud. The lower petal, called the labellum, forms a landing plaform for visiting pollinators. The common spotted orchid’s three-lobed labellum is patterned with traffic signals that point visitors into the flower’s centre where the nectaries are.

The wings of the flower, that look like baby Yoda ears, are not petals at all: they are two lateral sepals. The third sepal and the final two petals form the hood which hovers over and encloses the column at the flower’s centre. There are three elements to the column: the flower’s reproductive organs, the female pistil and a single male stamen, fused together and topped by a protective anther cap, which is there to prevent self-fertilisation.

The whole flower is spring loaded. The weight of a bee landing on the labellum causes the column to bend down and either stamp pellets (pollinia) of sticky pollen onto the bee’s head or pick up the pellets left there by another flower. Clever as well as beautiful!

Header picture: common spotted orchid by Simon Knight


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