Before you can pollinate an orchid, you really need to know its anatomy and how its sex act works.
Select a flower from your flowering plant and cut it off the stem. Bring it inside and we'll work on the white paper sheet. The pictures here are taken with Cymbidium Warm Waters, but other Cymbidiums will be similar.
© Copyright 2006+ Arthur Sale
Last Modified: 23 December 2010
Plants have a variety of ways of doing sex. Some plants have two different sexes (like humans), others have only one sex of plants but two separate sex organs. Yet others have cycles of sexless and sexed plants. Orchids fall into the category of two sexes in one, but they have evolved so that the two sex organs are merged into one structure - the column. Look at your Cymbidium straight on. You will see three outer sepals (the remnants of the case that surrounded the bud) at about roughly 12, 4 and 8 o-clock on the clock dial, and three inner petals at roughly 2, 6 and 10 o-clock. All six may be brightly colored. Ignore the colors apart from noting that the whole structure is a long-range signalling system saying 'Come here'.
Can't you see the 6 o-clock (straight down) petal? It has evolved into the lip, which in Cymbidiums has become a landing strip for the insects that pollinate orchids in the wild. The lip may even have a precursor of an airport runway markings in its spots and coloration. Orchids are fantastic in the ways they attract insects to do their pollination for them. Just above the lip is the sex organ - the column. This is what we are really interested in.
Now let's take our flower and with our very sharp knife with a new blade (don't use kitchen knives; they are far too blunt) cut it in two halves vertically. The result should look like this.
Some of the parts are delicate, and you probably dislodged the anther cap or the pollinia when you cut through. These are in the anther region. Don't worry. This is just a dissection to understand what the workings of a Cymbidium are. If you are concerned, cut up another flower watching carefully.
Forget about the petals, sepals and lip. The important bits we want to observe are the column and the ovary. At the very top of the column is the anther cap which acts as an umbrella over the pollinia. The anther cap breaks off very easily - it is designed to do so when a bee backs out of the orchid, exposing the pollinia. Think of it as disposable boxer shorts that can be torn off.
The pollinia are waxy balls containing the pollen. Think of the pollinia as testicles, and the pollen as sperm. Cymbidiums have two pollinia; other orchids have more.
Just under the male section is one of the orchid's female parts: the stigma. The stigma is covered with a gummy substance. The stigma (or stigmatic cavity) is just under the top of the column; at the bottom is the ovary where the seeds will develop. In human terms think vagina and womb. The ovary is below the petals and sepals (called an inferior ovary or in other words underneath).
So now to rehearse the first part of the orchid sex act: a big fat bumblebee (and it has to be big for a cymbidium) lands on the lip and goes into the centre of the flower for whatever reason the plant set up to attract it (smell, nectar, pheromones). As it backs out, its hairy back contacts the sticky substance on the stigma, lifts up and maybe breaks off the anther cap, and the pollinia contact the sticky deposit. As the bee continues to back out, the pollinia pull away from their holding sacs, and the bee flies away with one or two pollinia stuck on its back.
Now our bee visits another orchid flower. This time, when it backs out the pollinia which are loosely stuck on its back contact the sticky part of the stigmatic cavity, and transfer to it (there is more sticky than the bit on the bee's back). Voila! This second plant has a testicle or two to use to fertilize its eggs! It's on its way to propagate!
To summarize: this is a three-person sex act: pollen parent -> pollinator -> pod parent.
Orgasm!! Maybe not as fast as us but the flower will recognize the presence of the pollinia quite quickly. It may change color, the stigma may swell to prevent any more pollination, and the ovaries may begin to swell. It may take a number of weeks for the flower to show signs of having been fertilized. Pollen tubes grow to transfer pollen from the pollinia down to the ovary where it unites with the eggs. The seeds begin to grow.
The next step is to look at being an alien pollinator.