Sunday, October 4, 2009

Travelling light

This strange object, magnified one hundred times under the microscope, is a single seed of a common spotted orchid Dactylorhiza fuchsii. The lower photo shows a couple of the orchid’s seed capsules, with the dust-like seed laying on the paper below.

Unlike seeds of oak and horse chestnut, which send their seeds out into the world with a large food store surrounding the embryo, orchids have a much more minimalist approach to equipping their embryos for future survival. The orchid embryo – inside the darker object in the centre of the seed in the top photo – has no food store and is housed in a fragile papery coat, just one cell thick. The whole seed is no larger than a speck of dust and is so light that it can be swept up by air currents and wafted long distances – orchid seed could easily be blown across the English Channel, for example. So, unlike heavy seeds with a large food that are unlikey to disperse very far from the parent plant, orchid seeds are great travellers heading for random destinations and this accounts for their tendency to suddenly appear in unlikely places – lawns, roadside verges, industrial spoil tips, to name but a few. A large orchid flower spike will produce tens of thousands of these minute seeds, but only a tiny fraction will ever achieve the next critical step in the life cycle – landing on soil that contains the essential mycorrhizal fungus that will link up with the germinating seed and provide the embryo with the nutrients that it lacks until the seedling is large enough to produce leaves and survive on its own. After that the orchid's roots returns the favour by supplying its partner fungus with nutrients for the rest of the orchid's life. Early growth of the orchid seedling is slow and its leaves passes unnoticed - until it's large enough to produce a spectacular flower spike........and to read about the next step in the life cycle - pollination of the flowers - take a look at


  1. amazing..... nothing else to say...

  2. Thanks Binoy Mathew, it's amazing how these tiny seeds manage to establish themselves and become a spectacular plant


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