Darwin’s Orchid

This striking orchid is known not only for its beauty but for its story. The remarkable design looks less like a flower than some kind of engineering construction. Angraecum sesquipedale – the flower was discovered in eastern Madagascar by the French botanist Louis-Marie Aubert du Petit-Thouars, is also known widey as Darwin’s orchid.

The genus name, Angraecum, is derived from the Malayan word anggrek, which is used to describe several species of epiphytic orchids. The specific epithet sesquipedale comes from the Latin sesquipedalis, meaning ‘one and a half feet’, in reference to the long flower spur.

This orchid is widely known and admired for its association with Charles Darwin who was sent a specimen in 1862. He predicted it would be pollinated by a moth with a proboscis 20 – 30 cm long. The moth was discovered in Madagascar by Rothschild and Jordan in 1903 and named as Xanthopan morgani praedicta, seventeen years after his death. As predicted both spur and proboscis are long.  Darwin was fascinated with how orchids, the world’s largest plant family with nearly 30,000 species, are pollinated by insects, because they had co evolved in many different ways with their pollinators.

 

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