In an e-mail exchange following his recent article in the Journal Europaeischer Orchideen (JEO), Richard Bateman, orchid specialist at Kew Gardens, wrote me that albiflora plants “are far more common among diploid Dactylorhiza species than tetraploid species”. A possible reason might be the “buffering of mutations by having four comparable genes in the tetraploid chromosomes”. Diploid species (with 40 chromosomes) are Dactylorhiza fuchsii, D. incarnata and D. sambucina. Tetraploid species (with 80 chromosomes) are D. majalis, D. praetermissa, D. maculata, D. elata, D. sphagnicola and D. traunsteineri.
Albiflora plants of Dactylorhiza fuchsii are quite often observed, and in Ireland there is also the intriguing D. fuchsii ssp. okellyi which is diploid as well. D. incarnata and D. sambucina are known for their colour dimorphism: red and yellow with D. sambucina, purple and yellowish-white with D. incarnata and its var. ochroleuca. In a recent article in the Annals of Botany (2009), Mikael Hedrén and Sofie Nordstroem presented the results of their reasearch about the colour dimorphism with D. incarnata. They observed that there was “no clear pattern of habitat differentiation … among the colour morphs”. With D. incarnata var. ochroleuca “the lack of anthocyanins is probably due to a particular recessive allele in homozygous form” – the diploid chromosome set has both alleles determining the lack of purple in the flowers.
Besides genetics, colour also affects the pollination function of orchid flowers. Bateman wrote me that “in at least a few cases, instantaneous loss of anthocyanins (or even just radical decrease in anthocyanin production) must affect pollinator preference, and lead to lineage divergence”. A potential example of such an evolutionary process could be Gymnadenia frivaldii as a relative of Gymnadenia conopsea.
But in general the question of a certain functionality of colour change is still unanswered. Following his mentioning of white flowers in the above mentioned JEO article, Bateman wrote me it would be “more correct to use the term ‘parallelism’ rather than ‘convergence’, since in most cases no-one has demonstrated a change of function or ‘behaviour’ in the abnormal white flowers”. He further noted “the probability that many different mutations and epimutations generate white flowers”. Recognising that there are quite many open questions, Bateman also asked “whether white is actually a colour at all”, pointing to the “very simple shifts between ‘white’ flowers and ‘green’ flowers in Platanthera”.