Deceptive Beauties: The World of Wild Orchids. Christian Ziegler; with an introduction by Michael Pollan. 2011. The University of Chicago Press, Chicago and London. 184 pages with extensive illustrations. $45.00. Hardcover. ISBN-13: 978-0-226-98297-7
In his first edition of Fertilization of Orchids by Insects (1854), Charles Darwin wrote, “The object of the following work is to show that the contrivances by which Orchids are fertilized, are as varied and almost as perfect as any of the most beautiful adaptations in the animal kingdom; and, secondly, to show that these contrivances have for their main object the fertilization of each flower by the pollen of another flower.”
This object continues to be a focus of books such as Deceptive Beauties: The World of Wild Orchids. While it would be easy to describe this book as another coffee table book because of its many gorgeous photos, something Darwin was unable to include, author Christian Ziegler has managed to include a great deal of geographic, climatic, and evolutionary information, as well as anecdotes about his own collecting and photographing expeditions. His principal themes comprise the book chapters: Adaptation, Diversity, and Pollination.
Orchids are one of the largest and most diverse families of flowering plants with more than 25,000 species in 725 genera occurring across six continents in habitats as diverse as in tree canopies or underground, in rainforests or deserts, and from the tropics to remote mountaintops. Ziegler, a biologist–photographer who has written and photographed for National Geographic, has traveled to four continents for the photos presented in this book. He acknowledges the assistance of his resident institution, the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama, for access to its canopy cranes to view epiphytic species, as well as numerous scientists and orchid enthusiasts who allowed him access to their collections. Photographs are identified by botanical name and location. As befits a professional photographer, the images are crisply in focus, well-composed, and varied in perspective. The index allows one to find photographs and text references to the genera/species quickly.
Natalie Angier writes in the foreword that Victorian critics called orchid flowers a form of “‘horticultural pornography’ that no proper woman should associate with, which only guaranteed that proper and sufficiently monied women wanted nothing but.” In the introduction by Michael Pollan, Darwin is referenced frequently; his The Botany of Desire is paralleled: “… plants were hard at work developing a whole bag of other tricks to advance their interests.” Pollan notes that orchids have evolved reproductive strategies that attract animals (insects, chiefly) for food, shelter, and sex and that what he learned on trips with Ziegler forced him to revise his estimation of what a clever plant is capable of doing to a credulous animal.
Orchid distribution often is rather scattered, requiring rather specific pollinators that will seek them out. The secret of orchid success is sex—not just normal sex, but weird sex. Whether creating a labellum structure resembling a female bee to lure a male bee to try to copulate with it, thus removing its pollinia, or producing a scent that imitates a pheromone, or hiding its nectar deep within a long nectary tube that requires a long proboscis to extract nectar and, incidentally, the pollinia, or enticing a pollinator inside an enclosure that allows exit only past the pollinia-bearing structures, orchids have evolved a variety of means to attract their pollinators, which are often unique to that species. Ziegler’s photos well illustrate these adaptations as does his text describing how pollination among the orchids varies from the approaches of more common flowering plants.
Ziegler’s text is a good read, and it is supported by a bibliography that, while selective, introduces the reader to a variety of other books and scientific literature. One of his resources, John Alcock of Arizona State University, has his own book with similar emphases but not so gloriously illustrated: An Enthusiasm for Orchids, Sex and Deception in Plant Evolution (Oxford University Press, 2005). Although Alcock’s book is a more ecological and scientific study, both books are attractive for their discussions of plant–insect interactions, photographs, and summarizations of updates to what so captivated Charles Darwin more than 150 years ago.
This book will be of use to the ever-increasing audience of orchid enthusiasts and also to those who have to give talks to local plant societies. The high quality of the photographs will serve as an inspiration to horticulturists whose hobby it is to capture the beauty of flowers. It is more likely to serve as a reference to university people than as a textbook and contains little that would be of use to a grower, although it may provide an introduction to genera/species beyond those in general culture. At $45 (low cost because it was printed in China), this book is an affordable addition to a plant photographer’s collection.