Pareidolia is the tendency to see familiar or significant images in places where none is intended. Classic examples are sightings of Jesus or the Virgin Mary in wood grain or the pastime of looking for shapes in clouds. Pareidolia is encouraged in the Rorschach inkblot test. There are plenty of examples in the natural world, and orchids are particularly notable for looking like something else.
Orchis purpurea, or Lady Orchid, range through Europe and Northern Africa. The lovely blossoms show a wide purple skirt and a fabulous hat, under which you can almost see a pair of demure eyes. We don't know why a plant would grow flowers that look like a lady, but we can sure see it.
Naked Man Orchid
Orchis italica is native to the Mediterranian area, and is sometimes called the Naked Man Orchid. You can see why. The blossoms even have little eyes and smiles!
Dracula radiosa is an orchid native to Colombia. It might not look the way you picture Dracula from the movies, but it certainly has a creepy face staring at you. Dracula is the genus name, and there are over 100 species, so the face in this flower has nothing to do with Dracula. Still creepy.
Monkey Face Orchid
There are about 60 species of Moth Orchids (Phalaenopsis), which are native to Asia and popular among orchid growers. Many of them, if you look really close, appear to have a small bird emerging from their center. Get a closer look at this pink specimen.
Get an even better look at the bird in another photograph at Flickr.
Flying Duck Orchid
The Australian orchid genus Caleana is still not fully classified, but it is commonly called the Flying Duck Orchid. The shape evolved to attract the sawfly, which pollinates the plant. Each component of the flower is design to use the sawfly, like a bright color for it to see, a place to land, and a petal that traps the fly into taking a pollen-rich route out. That's one smart duck!
While we can't say that nature intended for an orchid to look like a male body or a flying duck, the orchid genus Ophrys has a simple reason for looking the way it does. The Bee Orchid (Ophrys apifera) bloom resembles a bee in order to attract bees. When a male bee tries to mate with the flower (because it's so pretty), he ends up pollinating it. Using an insect to achieve plant sex is common, but using insect sex to achieve plant sex is brilliantly weird. It apparently works well, because Ophrys ranges over several continents. You can read more about orchids that imitate insects at NPR.
Another species of Orphys is the Fly Orchid (Ophrys insectifera). The flowers not only look like flies, but also smell of insect pheromones. Found all over Europe, the Fly Orchid does not even have to produce nectar to draw flies for pollination purposes.
A Well-dressed Orchid
Javier Díaz Barrera took this picture of an unidentified orchid in Spain just a couple of months ago. Can you see the little smiling man wearing a suit and tie? You have to wonder what kind of insects this is supposed to attract! My guess is that it is related to the Ophrys genus.
Bonus: Hooker's Lips
Orchids may be the masters of plant pareidolia, but they aren't the only plants that look like something else. Psychotria elata is a tropical plant that produces the psychedelic chemical DMT. The plant is also called Hooker's Lips. I can't imagine why.