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Star of the Show
At the New York Botanical Garden, an ivory-colored orchid is a stunning—and aromatic—example of evolution in the natural world.

Talisman Brolin/TalismanPHOTO

In a humid greenhouse in New York, a plant with more than a dozen waxy, six-pointed blooms beckons to potential pollinators. In a labyrinth of orchids of every shape, color, and smell, this nocturnally fragrant flower, the star orchid, stands out among the rest as one that helped prove Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution. It’s now a part of Darwin's Garden: An Evolutionary Adventure, a celebratory exhibit at the New York Botanical Garden to commemorate Darwin’s 200th birthday and the 150th anniversary of the publication of Origin of Species.

The star orchid is just one of 300,000 known orchid species (8,000 of which can be seen at the Botanical Garden) that can be as tiny as a pearl or as large as a softball and smell of everything from powder to cheese. Orchids were an integral part of Darwin’s study while he tested, experimented, and formulated his theory of evolution (he even wrote a book on the subject, titled Fertilisation of Orchids). Boasting ivory petals and a menthol scent, the star orchid has proven to be an exquisite model of co-evolution, whereby two organisms affect each other’s evolution.

Noticing that the star orchid came equipped with an 11-inch long nectar spur extending from each blossom, Darwin predicted that only one animal—with an especially long tongue—could pollinate it. But the animal remained a mythical creature until 40 years later, when scientists discovered a moth with a furled tongue that was the longest in proportion to its body size of any animal. In honor of Darwin’s hypothesis, the moth was named Xanthophan morgani praedicta, Latin for “predicted moth.”

The New York Botanical Garden

The moth and the flower are a perfect fit: The moth gets hard-to-reach nectar and, in doing so, pollinates the orchid, ensuring cross-fertilization. “They’ve adapted a perfect design,” says Marc Hachadourian, a curator who focuses on orchids at the garden (although no plant is safe from his meddling, he says). (To see a video of the moth and star orchid in action, click here.)

Like the star orchid, most other species of orchids are adapted to only one pollinator. Their fragrances and flowers are masters of deception, says Hachadourian. Some blooms look like the female parts of the pollinator, so the males of the species fertilize the flowers by accident; others trap flies in their blooms so the insects have to wriggle out, bumping against and inadvertently collecting the pollen; and some, like the star orchid, have nectar spurs the perfect length for a beak or a tongue.

Although visitors to the Darwin’s Garden exhibit will not see the moth pollinate the star orchid, the plant, which blooms for one to two months, will be on display until June 15th as a potent example of Darwin’s theory.

Exhibit: Darwin’s Garden: An Evolutionary Adventure
Dates: Now through June 15, 2008
Location: New York Botanical Garden, Bronx River Parkway at Fordham Road   Bronx, New York 10458
Admission: Adults, $20; children (2-12) $7; seniors/students with ID, $18            
Hours: Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Telephone: 718-817-8700
More information: New York Botanical Garden

For more Audubon coverage on orchids, read: "A Blooming Ghost" and "The Orchid Keepers"

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