top of page

Sometimes it’s all in a name, a paradox indeed by Suzanne Pickford

Oron Peri, owner of “Seeds of Peace” and an expert on the glorious bulbs and iris of the Mediterranean and Asia, is coming to New Zealand, with The Steve Newall Memorial Lecture Series. click here to get straight to the booking page.

In 1916 an article appeared in a National Horticultural Society of France describing the attempted mating of the orchid, Ophrys speculum, with a wasp. A judge-advocat named Pouyanne had wondered, as many before him had, why the orchid’s lip so closely resembled a certain kind of wasp. The keen amateur naturalist had worked out what the wasp, and only male wasps were doing. It was perhaps the greatest breakthrough in our knowledge of plant sex life to date, yet it was greeted with a mixture or prudery, disbelief and apathy. Others claimed “some people would see sex in anything.” Even 10 years later a notable botanist noted; “No wonder that insects neglect the Ophrys flowers! The design of the lip really helps to scare away unbidden guests. The flower wants no visitors, therefore it mimics the form of a visiting insect.” While some agreed in part with our observant naturalist, it wasn’t until nearly half a century later he was proved right in every detail, through the painstaking work of a Swedish botanist. Dr Bertil Kullenberg who published a book on his studies. It combines just the right mixture of mystery, suspense, detection and sex. Even today we still occasionally may hear of a woman being deflowered, this attitude goes right back to the ancients who thought a flower not only as sexless, but as a final refuge from sex, with all its attendant passions and problems. Yet in reality plants, with their floral sex organs are into it with a life and death imperative!

Even today, orchids’ bewitching beauty, their guile and their suggestive resemblances (‘orchis’ is ancient Greek for ‘testicle’) ensure a cult following and the orchid is still used in medicines believed to evoke sexual desire and treat impotence.

Bee orchids are common throughout Europe, but many species in colder climes of Britain for example, while they mimic bees and attract them, they must resort to self-pollination to ensure a successful pollination due to the scarcity of their insect helpers. The rarest bee orchid is the early spider orchid, Ophrys sphegodes, which is pollinated by the equally rare solitary bee Andrena nigroaenea, like most species they are pollinated by only one or a few closely related insect species. The visual and tactile cues are real, but this orchid also employs a scent, a female pheromone that elicits mating behaviour in the apparently desperate males. The male climbs on and a pair of structures deposit the pollen directly on to the bee, perfectly placed, once the dry and roll back somewhat, ready for the next flower’s female stigmatic surface. Yet, as already noted, the insects are not always around so fairly soon after opening the pollinia stalks dry and shrink, as they do if on a bee, swinging downwards under their own weight and landing squarely on the stigma. So success is ensured.

In the Mediterranean area, however, a species of bee orchid is pollinated by the solitary bee, Eucera sp. Again the plant attracts the bee by producing a scent that mimics the scent of the female. The lip of the flower also acts as a perfect decoy which makes the male bee confuse it for a female. Pollen transfer again occurs during the ensuing pseudocopulation, actual sperm can be lost, so genuine is the attraction. These examples of reproductive mimicry are incredible indeed.

Photo: Oron Peri Ophrys apifera ( Bee Orchid) on Mt. Carmel in Israel. In the top flower, the two pollinia (pollen bearing structures) can be seen hanging down ready to glue to the male’s head.

The genus name Ophrys comes from Greek and means 'eyebrow' - a reference to the hairy fringe of the lip of the flower of many orchids in this genus. The specific epithet speculum means 'mirror', a reference to the light-reflective patch on the labellum.

There are local extinctions of Ophrys spp. and potentially O. apifera in Turkey and Iran due to the excessive harvesting of wild orchids to produce salep products among other threats to the species. This salep is ground up orchid tuber and is thought to have nutritional, medicinal, and aphrodisiac values. Its use has spread from the Ottoman Empire and beyond and is still used today.

Since O. apifera relies heavily on its symbiotic relationship with Tulasnella fungi for survival, it is vulnerable to any chemicals, particularly fungicides. For this reason they are difficult to grow as the dust like seed, common to all orchids, has no nutritional reserves and relies on a successful symbiotic relationship immediately upon germination.

It is interesting then that our tale has lead us back to the ancient lands of the Mediterranean, the Fertile Crescent and specifically of Israel, Oron Peri’s home and nursery.

Orchid flowers and their specific pollination evolution, hand in hand as it is, with their pollinators, comes as no surprise to the botanically curious, but one other plant has really got me intrigued; Iris paradoxa. It is classified in the Oncocyclus group of Irises The paradoxa or strangeness of the iris, is that in most forms of irises, the standards are smaller than the falls, but on I. paradoxa the falls are much smaller than the standards.

Photo Oron Peri. Iris hermona with the “normal Iris petal arrangement”: upper petals/standards/flags and larger sepals/falls beneath. In the paler forms of the species like I. hermona in the Oncocyclus group, they have incredibly beautiful venation and patterning. An incorrect assumption is that they are honey guides but obviously this is not the case as generally insects do not come to visit them.

The Oncocyclus orchids have an interesting pollination story of their own, they offer insects no reward for their visit, that is no appreciable amount of pollen for insects to harvest and no nectar at all. Something weird is going on as only male solitary Eucerine bees regularly visited the flowers and only after their visits did the plants set seed.

Photo Oron Peri, Iris paradoxa, Van, Turkey. Note the small jewel-like velvety falls and if you look very closely there are the small petalled covers of the style tube like a small triangular hat above the falls.

Iris paradoxa, in the same tribe and pictured above, has evolved its own curious bee relationship, taking the whole business a step further than its close relatives. This parallel evolution is completely independent of the orchids which are not at all related. I suppose if it is a good survival strategy, more than one genus can eventually come to the same solution.

In this species the lip, (the name taken from the orchid flower above), is a highly modified shrunken fall and it looks and feels like a female bee so well it deceives the male of a type of carpenter bee, that have been observed pseudo-copulating on the reduced, velvety petals. One wonders what on earth is going on here as the plant must be in control of the insect somehow to get itself pollinated, set seed, ensuring species survival. Oron Peri has studied these flowers, hand pollinated them and found them in the wild so he has worked out their tricks which he will share with us at his talks to the NZAGS in October.

Like many species of attractive bulbs, Oncocyclus iris are often depleted in the wild. Some even face extinction due to overcollection, loss of habitat, overgrazing and overdevelopment. The man on a mission to save and disperse these bulbs by fair means is Oron Peri, his family have been in Israel for 9 generations and his love of nature and his fellow man is evident in his life generally and in the choice of his business name “Seeds of Peace.” His passion for his homeland’s bulbs has resulted in his multitude of sand beds requiring a completely new, bigger site down the road. Now he grows and collects interesting cultivars and wild type plants sourced ethically originally from all over Asia and the Mediterranean. His harvested bounty is available on his gorgeous, eye candy filled website for all to buy. As long as they are on our MPI list, as Iris paradoxa is, we are free to import the seed. Many NZAGS members are addicted to this hobby now too, waiting excitingly for the list to be released at this time of the year, then germinating and growing the seedlings to flowering bulbs and rhizomes over a few years. The Oncocyclus group of irises can be hard to germinate, those in the know carefully chip the seed. They are part of an elite group of 32 Iris species native to the Fertile Crescent region of southwestern Asia. They are some of the showiest irises and the hardest to grow out of their homeland. I. paradoxa is one of the easier ones to grow in an alpine house or in rock gardens as long as they have a proper summer drought. Coming from high altitudes the cold does not harm them.

So thankfully the Oncocyclus irises have caught the eye of bulb growers around the world. By sharing information on the needs of these plants in cultivation, growers can help expand on efforts to save species like these.


bottom of page