This is exactly how The Missouri Botanical Garden publicizes their orchid show this year: “Orchid Show: Madagascar.” If you read the fine print, you get this: “Delight in the sights and sounds of tropical Madagascar while viewing the Garden’s world-renowned orchid collection. The 2013 Orchid Show celebrates 25 years of Garden research and conservation work in the island nation.” But there is no sign of orchid biology from Madagascar.
That’s right. They have some random stuff from Madagascar, baskets, spoons, some fake huts and the like while they have on display entirely disorganized random orchids. They have cultivars mixed with natives, completely hilly nilly. There are a lot of pretty orchids here. They proudly say they cycle in others every week because they have too many to show.
It was crowded this Sunday. The cameras were either the huge guns, or cell phones. People wandered through the leafy aisles, browsing the beauty of orchids. They may have learned that orchids are pretty, but I bet they already knew that. What a lost opportunity for enriching lives with orchids!
OK, smarty pants, what would you have done? Well, I have lots of ideas, in no particular order.
Artificial selection: First, since there seems to be a big focus on cultivars, I would make a little exhibit showing how artificial selection could favor certain traits and exaggerate them. I would have the wild type in the middle and an array of cultivars around it. I would try to give an indication of how long the artificial selection took, or if it was just from keeping a sharp eye for natural mutants. You could do this for several different popular species.
Biogeography: One of the first things I like to know is what occurs where. Since this show claims to have a Madagascar theme, put the orchids from Madagascar together. Show their similarities and differences from nearby Africa. Label all the orchids according to their distribution and habitat, and give the Latin names. At least the show did generally give Latin names.
Adaptation and coevolution: Orchids don’t make those flowers just for us. They are so they get pollinated. They aim to attract insects, hammer them with their pollen in a way that gets it to the next orchid. It is a penis on wings, really, borrowed from another organism. They have tons of cool ways of sticking their pollen, all in a ball, onto insects. They have ways of making sure their own pollen doesn’t do the job, separating the female parts of the flowers above the male. Why Darwin himself predicted the existence of a hawk moth based on the shape of an orchid from Madagascar. You might think this cool fact would make it into the show, but no.
Systematics and evolution: How did orchids evolve? What are the major forms? What does the Tree of Life look like down in orchid land? How did all these amazing forms come from a common ancestor? Are there fossil orchids? Where? What do they look like?
Ecology: What does an orchid need? What is an epiphyte? What is the community in which orchids live? How does it vary? What are the interdependences? What microbes do orchids depend on?
Conservation: How is climate change affecting orchids? How many orchids are we losing to deforestation? What can we do to save the orchids?
Orchids in Madagascar: What orchids are in Madagascar? How do they live? How do they vary across habitats? Were there multiple introductions, or just one? How to all the topics above impact orchids in Madagascar?
Education enriches our lives. I am sad that MoBot has given up such a wonderful opportunity for telling us something we can remember and instead is just giving us a bunch of unordered flowers and some background music. Wouldn’t Henry Shaw have been much more proud of an educated approach?