Spring is all about the birds and the bees...
- Credit: PA
I saw something I had never seen before the other day: earthworms having sex! It was about as fleshy and yucky as that sounds but nevertheless intriguing and a moment of profound wonderment on my part. Of course, spring is all about copulation – why else the birdsong, the buzz of bees and the pollen-laden stamens amidst scented petals?
But it doesn’t get much more down-to-earth than the worms I saw. Their bodies half submerged about 20cm apart and the exposed halves side by side, joined in two places. I moved a blade of grass and they vanished at lightning speed. I felt guilty for spoiling their earthworm fun but, in truth, the joy of the new discovery far outweighed any shame on my part.
Spring has sprung, albeit a little falteringly this year, and while the earthworms are a reminder of where it’s all headed, the flowers, the birds and the bees elaborate nature’s great love song and in doing so invite us into the romance. Nature has a way of kindling passions in us be it in the giving of a simple bunch of flowers or in a lifetime of devotion to a particular aspect of nature.
My friend Jon Dunn has recently written a book (Orchid Summer, Bloomsbury) about those most sublime of plants: the orchids. I have bought a copy and am enjoying reading about his summer of orchid-hunting – a quest to see all the species of orchid native to Britain and Ireland.
I would be the first to admit that I personally know very little about orchids – I have found at most two or three species on my rambles locally – but I was intrigued to discover more, especially from the pen of a friend with whom I shared some of my earliest encounters with nature.
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I have always thought of orchids as the butterflies of the plant world with their fragile beauty, their ephemeral existence and their, more often than not, extreme rarity. Such qualities invariably inspire awe and wonder with each encounter and attract devout followers who go to great lengths to locate and study the plants. It should have come as no surprise then that, on opening my friend’s book, I did not find detailed species descriptions, distribution maps and site guides but instead a tale of passion, of personal endeavour and of mystery and intrigue. If the monasteries of old sought to counter the age-old vices of money, sex and power with their oaths of poverty, chastity and obedience, then they would have done well to acknowledge the orchids’ part in all three!
As far back as pre-Roman times orchids have proved alluring not just for their exquisite beauty and extreme rarity but also for their medicinal properties – their roots among other things believed to be a powerful aphrodisiac.
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Botanists and herbalists across the world and over the centuries have been employed by kings, emperors and the wealthy, to supply orchid specimens, either for private collections or one-off elaborate show pieces. Like ermine in a royal gown, orchids speak of wealth and power…but they also speak of sex.
If flowers give us a language for love then orchids take it to another level. Not only are they beautiful flowers but the extraordinary precision of their petal arrangements and associated parts also gives them an edge in vying for the attentions of insect pollinators.
As an orchid researcher from the University of Naples expressed it, when it comes to attracting pollinators, “Sexy orchids do it better!”
A case in point is the Fly Orchid whose petals mimic the outline of a fly so perfectly that male digger wasps (wholly unlike the stripy picnic pests!) find them irresistible. In addition, the orchid scent closely resembles the pheromones of a female digger wasp further encouraging the males to land.
There is no reward for the wasp in this act of ‘pseudocopulation’ but the orchid’s deceit ensures its pollen is carried off, onboard the wasp, to fertilize other orchids.
It was Charles Darwin who first observed the sexual deception of fly orchids. He was one in a long line of ‘orchidophiles’, my friend among them, engaged not just with the matter of scientific observation but in a love affair with orchids. For each of them, their discoveries were not so much eureka moments as moments of passionate love.
While I have not (yet) gone out in search of orchids I recognize that same passion in myself. It is a passion for those uniquely beautiful and unexpected experiences that arise in the secret moments when you discover something rare or new in nature. They are unforgettable moments, deeply personal and become part of your life’s journey, sometimes informing it and sometimes inspiring it. May you all feel the love this spring!