Book Review

Demystifying Orchid Pollination: Stories of Sex, Lies and Obsession by Adam P. Karremans




How to Cite: Pilla, N. J. (2024) “Demystifying Orchid Pollination: Stories of Sex, Lies and Obsession by Adam P. Karremans”, The Great Lakes Botanist. 62(3-4). doi:

Adam P. Karremans. 2023. Demystifying Orchid Pollination: Stories of Sex, Lies and Obsession. Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. 442 pp., hardcover $50.00. ISBN 978-1842467-84-8; eBook $50.00. ISBN 978-1842467-85-5.

There is something alluring about orchids that has captured the attention of naturalists and plant enthusiasts for over 100 years. This has been highlighted more recently in books such as Susan Orlean’s bestselling The Orchid Thief: A True Story of Beauty and Obsession (Orlean 1998) and Eric Hansen’s Orchid Fever: A Horticultural Tale of Love, Lust, and Lunacy (Hansen 2001). The Orchidaceae is the largest family of vascular plants in the world with an estimated 28,000 species and over 736 recognized genera (Chase et al. 2015; Christenhusz and Byng 2016). This vast diversity translates into a remarkable array of pollination mechanisms and growth forms, exemplifying the intricate adaptations of the orchid family. This is where Adam Karremans’ book delves into the exploration of evolutionary adaptations for the reproductive success of orchids. Karremans’ Demystifying Orchid Pollination: Stories of Sex, Lies and Obsession is an expertly curated dance that shows how to write good popular natural history while being deeply rooted in our current scientific understanding. There are 120 striking, well-placed, full-color photographs throughout the book that expertly illustrate the points discussed in the book and allow the reader to connect visually with the stories. The short, well-written forward by orchid specialist and author James Ackerman demonstrates well his deep understanding of orchids using clear language accessible to general audiences.

The book begins with an obligatory introduction to orchid morphology, natural history, and pollination syndromes, which also introduces Charles Darwin’s fascination and extensive work with orchids. Darwin’s pivotal role in the study of orchids and pollination is a recurring topic throughout the book. Readers without an understanding of orchid morphology can reference the nicely displayed floral parts of an orchid in Figure 1.2.2 on page 30 as they move through the book.

The author provides fascinating examples of deception where orchids lure pollinators through elaborate and devious ploys. The two main types of deception the author highlights are sexual and food deceptions. One example of sexual deception occurs in Drakaea (hammer orchids), in which the labellum of the flower mimics the appearance of flightless female thynnid wasps in order to attract males. The flower’s hinged lip, disguised as a virgin female, lures the male wasp to it. As the male attempts to copulate with the orchid’s lip, it slams the unsuspecting male wasp onto the column, ensuring pollen transfer before the frustrated male escapes hoping to find a less violent partner.

The focus then shifts to the fascinating ways orchids reward their pollinators beyond just nectar. These rewards include the orchids use of alluring fragrances, oils, and even the provision of convenient mating sites to attract the insects. For instance, Maxillaria flowers produce edible hair-like structures called trichomes that provide protein, oils, or starch for foraging insects. These trichomes have been colloquially referred to as “food-hairs.”

Building upon this foundation, the book dives into the world of what Karremans identifies as “misfit” pollinators. These are animals beyond the usual suspects (bees, flies, wasps, birds, and butterflies) that have remarkably evolved partnerships with orchids. Examples of such evolutionary relationships with organisms are explored, including those with ants, beetles, aphids, and even some reptiles! Karremans dedicates a 15-page section to the natural history of the genus Vanilla (vanilla orchids), including a surprising revelation about its animal associates.

Some of the specialized morphological floral accessories are explained, showcasing the unique structures that have evolved to ensure successful pollination. The evolutionary toolkit employed by orchid flowers to ensure reproduction, which sometimes includes self-pollination and protandrous floral mechanisms is highlighted. Though the pace slows somewhat here, there are still enough exciting stories presented to keep the reader engaged.

Karremans dispels some of the common myths and misconceptions surrounding orchids, drawing a clear distinction between fact and fiction in both popular stories and scientific literature. He debunks misconceptions like the supposed orchid-mimicry hunting behavior of Hymenopus coronutus (orchid mantis) and the initial hypothesis that Dendrophylax lindenii (ghost orchid) was pollinated by Cocytius antaeus (giant sphinx moth) due to its long nectar spur. Overall, this discussion is a little more disjointed in its flow than other sections of the book, not only lacking some of the previous charisma, but also feeling a bit forced together. For example, the section “Somebody Told Me” tackles the misconception that all orchids rely on specific pollinators. However, the author clarifies that many orchid species are generalists that are able to attract a wider range of pollinators. This inclusion seems somewhat forced into the chapter.

The final chapter, “Change,” delivers a sobering reminder of the ecological future facing many orchid species, including habitat destruction, orchid market exploitation, and climate change. One example of how climate change impacts orchids is the close relationship between the sexually deceptive Ophrys sphegodes (early spider orchid) and Andrena nigroaenea (solitary mining bee). The flower uses pseudocopulation as a pollination mechanism; however, as temperatures warm earlier in the year, the bee comes out of hibernation earlier before the orchid blooms. This phenological mismatch could lead to the orchid missing its chance of pollination altogether. Such disruptions in these essential synchronized life cycles pose a significant threat to the long-term survival of the orchid.

Throughout the book, Karremans uses QR codes to link the reader with videos associated with the narratives. These videos offer valuable opportunities to see the orchids and their unique features in action and add a unique experience for the reader, since the imagination may not be as proficient as seeing these interactions firsthand. However, the shift from paper-based reading to watching a video potentially leads the reader to high off-task distractions. This is exacerbated by the “recommended videos” from YouTube that appear after watching the intended video.

Overall, Karremans has done a spectacular job of connecting the reader with orchids in a digestible and educational way. As he notes in the first paragraph of the preface, “If wandering through these pages you are not astonished by the orchid’s marvellous nature, I will have failed in my purpose.” In this effort, he certainly did not fail. Karremans offers something for the experienced orchid specialist and the unexperienced layperson alike. As research unveils new stories, one should look forward to the sequel!

Literature Cited

Chase, M. W., K. M. Cameron, J. V. Freudenstein, A. M. Pridgeon, G. Salazar, C. Chase, C. Van den Berg, and A. Schuiteman. (2015). An updated classification of Orchidaceae. Botanical Journal of the Linnean Society 177: 151–174.

Christenhusz, M. J. M., and J. W. Byng. (2016). The number of known plants species in the world and its annual increase. Phytotaxa 261: 201–217.

Hansen, E. (2001). Orchid fever: A horticultural tale of love, lust, and lunacy. Vintage Books, New York, N.Y.

Orlean, S. (1998). The orchid thief: A true story of beauty and obsession. Ballantine Books, New York, N.Y.