Among the Orchids, Evidence of Evolution

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Vanda orchid at the New York Potanical Garden

The New York Botanical Garden is awash in orchids.

A new show presents hundreds of species of orchids, and one in particular stands out for its role in history. It's the Darwin's Star, Angraecum sesquipedale.

The plant has a white, star-shaped flower with a peculiarly long nectar spur.

The Orchid Show at New York Botanical Garden (Victor Chu)

In 1862, Charles Darwin was a 53-year old naturalist who had just a few years earlier startled the world with his theory of evolution.

One day in late January, he receives in the mail a box of orchids from Madagascar. One plant particularly intrigues him, with its long drooping pointed spur. The nectar at the bottom of it is nearly a full foot away from the opening.

Darwin Star orchid at the New York Botanical Garden (Ivo M. Vermeulen)

"Good heavens," Darwin writes to a friend, "what insect can suck it?"

Darwin had figured out that organisms evolve in ways that benefit their chance of survival. He then hypothesized that there must exist a moth with an unusually long proboscis—one long enough to reach all the way down to the bottom of that spur.

In 1992, a large hawk moth called the Morgan's Sphinx is observed in the wild, unrolling its incredibly long proboscis and taking a drink from the orchid, and proving Darwin right, 130 years later.

You can see the Darwin's Star orchid and thousands of others on display at the Botanical Gardens this week.

Karen Daubmann is a vice president for exhibitions. She says people come to the vaulted glass and steel Enid A. Haupt Conservatory to enjoy the gentle humidity, the colors, the variety of sights, and the smells.

"There is an orchid on display right now that smells like coconut suntan lotion." she said. "There's another one that smell like chocolate, There's another that smells like baby powder."

The annual Orchid Show lasts from March 1 through April 21.

Dancing Lady orchid at Brooklyn Botanical Garden (Ivo M. Vermeulen)