Spencer Museum of Art The University of Kansas

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Ghost Orchid Dancing
  • Clyde Butcher
    born 1942
    born: Kansas City, Missouri, United States
  • Ghost Orchid Dancing, 2000
  • Where object was made: United States
  • gelatin silver print
  • Object Height/Width: 14 x 11 in
  • Promised gift of Sam and Connie Perkins
  • Not on display
  • EL2017.158
  • Loan: Not in the Spencer's collection
Label Text

Exhibition Label:
"Big Botany: Conversations with the Plant World", 27-Mar-2018
In 1999, biologist Mike Owen invited Clyde Butcher to photograph the rare Ghost Orchid (Dendrophylax lindenii) in the Fakahatchee Preserve in Florida. Owen and Butcher returned to witness the same orchid blooming in 2000 and 2001, but by 2002 its host tree had been cut down and the orchid had been stolen. A similar occurence provided the story for Susan Orlean’s non-fiction book The Orchid Thief (1998), which served as the basis for the 2002 Spike Jonze and Charlie Kaufman movie Adaptation.

The biological background of the Ghost Orchid that Owen shared with Butcher related to a similar orchid, the Star or Comet Orchid (Angraecum sesquipedale). This Comet Orchid specimen had been sent to Charles Darwin in 1862 by British horticulturalist and plant collector James Bateman. Darwin was puzzled by this orchid from Madagascar because he could not imagine a pollinator capable of reaching the nectar at the end of the extremely long (28 cm) nectar spur. Darwin speculated that a moth might be found in Madagascar capable of the task. Alfred Russel Wallace concurred, noting an African hawkmoth known as Morgan’s Sphinx had a proboscis of adequate length. Indeed, a sphinx moth was identified in Madagascar in 1903, and given the name Xanthopan morganiipraedicta, in honor of Wallace and Darwin’s prediction of its existence in Madagascar. It was finally documented pollinating a Comet Orchid in 1997.

The Ghost Orchid also has a comparably long nectar spur, which can be seen in Ghost Orchid Dancing arcing away and down behind the flower’s stem. It is pollinated by the giant sphinx moth, Cocytius antaeus. Such examples of coevolution, in which species as disparate as an insect and plant evolve in ways that are mutually beneficial, exemplify the unfolding of natural selection.