What is it about orchids, that they have such power to capture the hearts and the minds of ordinary people? Their offbeat approach to life seems like it should doom them to obscurity. Puny herbs with lax, strap-shaped leaves, orchids occur most commonly on tree branches or on top of rocks. To survive without soil, they develop corky protective sheathing over their stubby roots, which dabble in the debris and dew that gathers in small notches and pockets. Although some orchids do grow in soil, occasionally stretching and clambering like vines, they never develop much heft. Some grow on decaying flesh. Two species from Australia actually live underground their whole lives, except for the odd occasion when they poke tiny blossoms into the open air.
Orchids pour all their earthly vigor into one paramount gamble: sexual reproduction. They are the Earth’s most ingenious inventors of flowers. Basically simple six-petal affairs, these flowers include one petal that twists itself into a gaudy, come-and-get-me lure called the labellum (from the Latin word for lip). These labella have an uncanny ability to use shape, color and aroma to attract the precise assistant that the plant needs. Flowers will mimic a specific insect of a region, reproducing the shape, color and smell of a sexually receptive female. A deluded male will plunge into the flower then stagger away, addled and stuck with pollen and ready to "mate" with the next orchid he finds. Or the flowers will mimic the insect’s enemy, drawing the creature into a useless battle during which the blossom will stick a gob of pollen on the foolish invader’s head. Some flowers smell like rotting flesh for the same purpose, or like chocolate, cinnamon, coconut, lemon, honey or a freshly cut cucumber. Add to this the incredible range of color—the only hue missing from this plant’s palette is pure black—and wacky shapes such as tremble-y tendrils or gooey traps. The orchid flower’s seductive precision is a true natural marvel.
After it’s fertilized, an orchid will produce its seed capsule—the Holy Grail for which breeders will wait seven years or more. This capsule ripens, splits and scatters into the wind thousands, if not millions, of dust-like seeds, the smallest seeds in the world of flowering plants. As Susan Orlean writes in The Orchid Thief: "One pod has enough seeds to supply the world’s prom corsages for the rest of eternity." Most of these perish, of course. Some have the rare luck of landing in a suitable niche, where they survive by sucking nutrients from microscopic fungi.
Contrary to what you might think, orchids are not restricted to hothouse jungles. They inhabit the stark meadows of Patagonia, the icy dales of Alaska, the daunting summits of the Himalayas, and the killing deserts of Africa and Australia. Every state in the United States has at least a few endemic species, including Minnesota, whose state flower (Cypripedium reginae) is an orchid. Some of the richest orchid regions of the world—South America, Indonesia, the Philippines—surround Hawaii on the Pacific Rim. New Guinea has more native orchids than anywhere else in the world.
But Hawaii has none.
Well, almost none. The native flora of Hawaii includes three species of orchids, but these are so obscure that two types did not even score a Hawaiian name. The Orchid Center of the World, with its ideal climate, never developed a significant orchid population of its own.
Undoubtedly, Hawaii’s remoteness stymied the ingenuity of the orchid family. No matter how hard the wind blew, those dust-like seeds could not withstand the passage over thousands of miles of open sea. Despite their skill at seducing bugs and birds to do their bidding, the orchids had to wait until just the right suckers came along. When the era of sailing ships, then airplanes, arrived, orchids found their perfect Hawaiian pollinators—human beings like Ben Kodama and the members of the Honolulu Orchid Society.