White-flowered orchid varieties are not just a “freak of nature” – they have quite obviously some biological function. A group of scientists in Montpellier in Southern France has found that the existence of albiflora plants in a population of Orchis mascula is connected with a much higher fruit set of the purple-flowered plants than in populations where there are no white-flowered Orchis mascula:
“Surprisingly, our study showed that the presence of co-occurring white-flowered individuals led to significantly higher reproductive success of nearby purple-flowered individuals (mean fruit set 27%), while white-flowered plants themselves had the same low fruit set (6%)”, the authors of the study – L. Dormont, R. Delle-Vedove, J.-M. Bessière, M. Hossaert-Mc Key and B. Schatz – wrote in their article in New Phytologist (2010) 185: 300–310. The flowers studied – overall 11 709 at 805 plants – showed almost the same increased fruit set when the researchers planted some ping-pong balls which mimic the white Orchis mascula inflorescences: “The effect was virtually identical in magnitude (fruit set increased from 6 to 27%), whether the nearby white-coloured object was an O. mascula inflorescence or a ping-pong ball.” The nearer a purple-flowered plant to the white colour, the higher was the fruit set developed due to a successful pollination.
The authors explain their surprising results with pollinator behaviour after visiting Orchis mascula who belongs to the food-deceptive orchids: “It seems plausible to suppose that after unrewarding visits to purple flowers, naïve pollinators probably avoid homogeneous populations of purple flowers, and may then preferentially orient to a different colour or to a colour contrast such as a mix of white and purple flowers.” Pollinators of Orchis mascula are bumblebees (Bombus, Psithyrus), solitary bees (Eucera, Nomada, Andrena, Apis) and the beetle Cetonia aurata.
The albiflora varieties are quite rare in the populations studied in Southern France: The authors counted 0.9 to 1.4 percent in different populations. But this is much higher than the percentage which could be assumed in the case of spontaneous mutations affecting floral pigmentation genes with an average of just 0.1 percent. Regarding the higher percentage of albiflora varieties with Orchis mascula the authors state that “it is unlikely that such high frequencies could be the result of repeated spontaneous mutations alone” – and this should also apply to the case of other orchid species with a higher percentage of white-flowered plants like Anacamptis morio or Dactylorhiza fuchsii in Western Ireland.
The white-flowered Orchis mascula themselves have only a low fruit set, but they “help” the purple-flowered plants of their species to be pollinated. “In O. mascula, the presence of whiteflowered variants might be regarded as an adaptation that benefits the purple-flowered relatives of white-flowered morphs, rather than providing a direct benefit to whiteflowered individuals”, the authors wrote and assumed that there is some “mechanism of kin selection” responsible to grant a higher percentage of albiflora plants.
The scientists in Montpellier are pursuing their research with other species as well. Laurent Dormont wrote me that they have also studied white-flowered plants of Calanthe sylvatica on the Caribbean island of La Réunion (the results to be published in Plant Systematics and Evolution and also the floral volatiles of white-flowered orchis species.