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Professor Fiona Stafford explores our incredibly long relationship with orchids, the largest family of flowering plants. They are 120 million years old with myriad surprises.

The orchid family has the largest number of species of any flowering plant and has existed for over 120 million years. There are more species of orchid than all species of mammals and birds combined. Orchids have culinary, medicinal, artistic, historical and literary stories galore. This astonishingly huge floral family has surprises galore in this essay. Many orchids do not photosynthesise, instead obtaining food from fungi that live inside their aerial roots. Orchids thrive on every continent including the Arctic. Many orchids adapt to very specific insects, such as the bee orchid, which attracts only male honey bees and whose existence depends on those insects thriving too. Others closely mimic the faces of specific animals, including the owl orchid and the monkey orchid. They can do this because orchids have bilateral symmetry, as do human faces, unlike many flowers which have universal symmetry. Orchids produce the world's favourite flavour ... vanilla, which comes from the pod of the orchid Vanilla planifolia. The genus Orchis comes from an Ancient Greek word meaning "testicle" because of the shape of the bulbous roots. The name "orchid" was not introduced until 1845.

A second series of these very popular flower essays written and presented by Fiona Stafford, Professor of Literature at Somerville College Oxford. Following her three much-praised series The Meaning of Trees and the first series of The Meaning of Flowers, Fiona explores the symbolism, importance, topicality and surprises of five more of the UK's most loved flowers. Across the series of essays, our ambiguous relationship with flowers is explored.

Producer, Turan Ali
A Bona Broadcasting production for BBC Radio 3.

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14 minutes

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