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Orchids

Evergreen Orchid Leaves Brighten The Forest Floor

11-14-18 rattlesnake plantain_U1A0849Downy Rattlesnake Plantain (Goodyera pubescens) is a perennial evergreen orchid found growing in deciduous and coniferous forests, often in dry, sandy soil.  While its hairy (downy) stalk of delicate, white, late-summer flowers is eye-catching (see 8/20/13 NC post), the leaves of Downy Rattlesnake Plantain are also works of art. Rosettes of bluish-green leaves emerge at the end of horizonal rhizomes, or stems, that are usually covered lightly by leaf litter.

The common name “plantain” has been applied to diverse, unrelated plants that have broad, flat leaves, the word being derived from the Latin word planta, referring to the sole of the foot. “Rattlesnake” alludes to the resemblance of this plant’s prominent reticulated veins to the scaly skin of snakes.

As is typical of orchids, the roots of Downy Rattlesnake Plantain have a mycorrhizal relationship with fungi that assists the plant in the acquisition of moisture and nutrients, while the plant provides products of its photosynthesis to feed the fungus. Also typical of orchids, the seeds of this species are minute and dust-like, bearing few nutrients to assist in the establishment of new seedlings. Seedling establishment requires assistance from soil fungi, from which the orchid derives the organic molecules it needs until it can make its own food via photosynthesis in its leaves.

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Showy Lady’s Slippers Flowering

6-18-18 showy lady's slipper_U1A7885

Showy Lady’s Slippers (Cypripedium reginae) can be found growing in five of the six New England states (all but Rhode Island). They are ranked as “extremely rare” in three of these states (CT, MA and NH), and uncommon in Vermont and Maine. To gaze upon a flowering clonal cluster of these striking orchids is a thrill no matter where you are in the Northeast.

Given their rarity and distinctive appearance, all populations of Showy Lady’s Slippers are well documented. However, one can still unexpectedly come upon them. In Vermont, where they are on the “List of Rare and Uncommon Native Vascular Plants,” an historical population that had not been seen since 1902 was rediscovered by the Green Mountain National Forest staff in 2009. It consisted of more than 1000 plants.

When you’re traveling through wetlands (forested or open) and moist woods, generally in limy sites, at low to moderate elevations, keep an eye open for these rare beauties. Showy Lady’s Slippers dramatically announce their presence at this time of year with their distinctive and colorful blossoms. (For more natural history on this species, go to the Naturally Curious blog, scroll down and on the right-hand side, search for “Showy Lady’s Slipper.”)

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Lady Slippers & Resupination

6-6-18 inverted pink lady's slippers by Sue WEtmore DSCN3871 (002)There is just as much learning, or more, going on at my end of this blog as there is at the readers’. A Vermont naturalist recently sent me a photograph of an upside down Pink Lady’s Slipper (Cypripedium acaule). Over 50 years in the field and I have never come across this phenomenon, nor was I familiar with the process that produced it.

Some flowers, including many orchids, are “resupinate.” While the flower is developing, the flower stalk does a 180 degree twist, bringing what would be the bottom of the flower to the top. With lady’s slippers, the labellum, or lip, is inverted, so that it ends up not above the other two petals, but below them. This modified petal, or pouch, serves to attract pollinating insects and acts as a landing platform for them. For some unknown reason, the stalks of the pictured Pink Lady’s Slippers never twisted, allowing us to see the original position of the labellum in both flowers. (Photo by Sue Wetmore)

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Showy Orchis Flowering

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Showy Orchis (Galearis spectabilis), one of the earliest orchids to bloom in the spring, produces a short stalk that rises between two large, glossy, green leaves and bears between two and fifteen flowers. A hood of pink to deep lavender sepals and petals protects the reproductive flower parts; the lower petal is white and spurred, providing a landing pad as well as nectar at the tip of the spur for visiting bumblebees (their main pollinators), butterflies and moths.

Like other orchids, Showy Orchis produces small seeds with no energy reserves. The germinating seedlings need to develop a relationship in their roots with a fungus in order to obtain nutrients for growth. Only certain fungi will develop this relationship, and for Showy Orchis they appear to be only fungi in the genus Ceratobasidium. (Thanks to Erla Youknot and Virginia Barlow for photo ops.)

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Nodding Ladies’ Tresses Flowering

9-14-17 nodding ladies' tresses 011Nodding Ladies’ Tresses (Spiranthes cernua) are flowering in wetlands throughout New England. This diminutive orchid is described to perfection by Minnesotawildflowers.info as a “spiraling stalk of closely clustered, crystally translucent white flowers thrusting their twisting trumpets out at right angles to the stalk.” The downward “nodding” curve of its tubular flowers and the vague resemblance of the flower stalk to a braid may account for its common name. The flower stalk is anywhere from four to twelve inches high and the lightly fragrant delicate flowers, like those of most orchids, are resupinate. That is, they twist during their development into an upside-down position.


Rose Pogonia Flowering

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We are at the tail end of the flowering season for Rose Pogonia, (Pogonia ophioglossoides). Although it also has the common name Snakemouth Orchid, the species’ name, ophioglossoides, comes from the Greek word for snake (ophis) and tongue (glossa), referring to a perceived similarity to Adder’s Tongue Fern (Ophioglossum pusillum), rather than a snake’s mouth.

The petals of this exquisite orchid have a delicate fragrance when fresh, reminiscent of red raspberries. The lower petal, or labellum, is deeply fringed and bearded in the center with yellow bristles. Rose Pogonia grows to a height of about two feet, and there is a single narrow leaf near the middle of its stem. Look for it in sphagnum bogs, fens, wet meadows, and acidic swamps. Although Rose Pogonia is pollinated by a number of different species of bumble bees, a white crab spider on the labellum looks like it has captured a much smaller insect that was visiting this particular flower.

NOTE: Sadie and I are overcome by the incredible generosity of Naturally Curious readers. Truly, there are not words to express the gratitude we have for each and every one of you. You feel like our extended family. A thousand thanks from Sadie, Otis and me. You have touched our hearts deeply.

Naturally Curious is the embodiment of my passion for learning and teaching about natural history.  If and when the spirit moves you to support my tiny contribution to your day, you can donate to a fund that was set up to support my recently-widowed daughter Sadie and her two-year-old, Otis.  If you choose to contribute, you may go to https://www.plumfund.com/financial-hardship/sadie-brown-otis-brown-fund . Thank you so much to those of you who have so generously done so.


Lesser Purple Fringed Orchis Flowering

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Approximately sixty orchids can be found in the Northeast, more than half of which are found growing in bogs and fens.  (Bogs are filled with atmospheric moisture and have very low levels of nutrients; fens receive their water from streams or springs, and have slightly more nutrients than bogs.)  In July and August in the Northeast,  the Lesser Purple Fringed Orchis (Platanthera psycodes) sends up a  1 – 3’ spike filled with fragrant, tiny (3/4” long) flowers, each of which possesses a three-lobed, fringed lower lip and a long nectar spur .  Found in cooler habitats, its range is being pushed northwards as global temperatures warm — a  specimen was found at an altitude of 1,500 feet in Vermont.   This orchid is on several states’ endangered or threatened lists outside of New England, and a species of special concern in Rhode Island. (Thanks to Shiela and Steven Swett for photo op.)

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Ram’s-head Lady’s Slippers Flowering

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Because of the small size of its flower, the brevity of its flowering period, and its rarity (ranked critically imperiled or imperiled throughout its range in New England), Ram’s-Head Lady’s Slipper is notoriously hard to find.  Its preferred habitat is moist, mossy bogs, but it can also be found in mixed woods and uplands.  If you’re fortunate enough to set eyes on one of these orchids, the diminutive size and conical-shape of its flower, compared to other Cypripedium species (Yellow, Pink and Showy Lady’s Slippers), will be strikingly apparent.

The flowers (which appear only if the plant is at least four inches high) mature in mid-May to early June, often developing very rapidly and typically lasting only a week or so. The sepals, lateral petals, and particularly the lower lip, or labellum (pouch made of fused petals), produce a sweet odor to attract potential pollinators, such as small bees.   Once the flower is fertilized, the upper sepal lowers over the opening of the pouch (see insert), excluding additional visitors. Although individual plants can produce copious numbers of minute seeds, reproduction appears to be largely asexual via offshoots of parent plants.

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Checkered Rattlesnake Plantain Flowering

8-7 downy rattlesnake plantain 083Checkered Rattlesnake Plantain (Goodyera tesselata) is an evergreen plant (each leaf lives for about four years) belonging to the Orchid family. It has broad, rounded leaves (like plantain) that bear a design somewhat reminiscent of snake skin. For the latter reason, it was used by Native Americans to treat snakebites. Botanists think it must have been used on bites from non-poisonous snakes, for medicinally it does not cure a venomous snake bite.

This species is quite similar to Downy Rattlesnake Plantain (G.pubescens), the most common species of rattlesnake plantain in New England, but its leaves lack the broad white stripe down the middle and its flowers as not as tightly clustered. At this time of year Checkered Rattlesnake Plantain’s tall flower stalk is bedecked with tiny, delicate, white orchids, each the size of a baby finger nail, which are well worth examining through a hand lens.

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Calopogon Flowering

6-26-15  calopogon 113A visit to a bog or marshy area at this time of year may well reward you with the sight of a striking orchid known as Calopogon or Grass-Pink (Calopogon tuberosus). Immediately noticeable are the fine, white “hairs” on the upper lip of the flower, which are thought to act as a “pseudopollen” lure, attracting native, recently-emerged bumblebees. The bees, expecting a reward of nectar and/or pollen, land on the hairs. At this point, the hinged labellum (part of flower that attracts insects and acts as a landing platform) swings down under the weight of the bee and positions the bee on the column (fused male and female structures located directly beneath the labellum), where pollen can be placed on its back. If the bee already carries a load of pollen, it will contact the stigma and thus pollinate the plant.

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Showy Lady’s Slippers Flowering

showy2  231The month of June can’t go by without a mention of Showy Lady’s Slippers. Just fifty years ago, this orchid could be found over most of the Northeast. Habitat loss and an exploding deer population are considered major factors in Showy Lady’s Slipper’s decline, making it endangered or on the verge of extinction in many areas. Although rare, it is still locally abundant, particularly in fens (peat wetlands that get their water from rainfall and surface water).

As with Pink and Yellow Lady’s Slippers, one of Showy Lady’s Slipper’s three petals is greatly modified into a large inflated pouch called the labellum . (The pouch’s color can vary widely from year to year, depending on the ambient temperature. Cooler conditions appear to produce more intense color.) The petals on either side of the pouch attract pollinators with an alluring odor, but the insects that enter into the pouch are in for a disappointment, as lady’s slippers produce little or no nectar. The structure and positioning of the pistil and stamens are such that they encourage cross-pollination to take place, which is crucial, as lady’s slippers rarely self-pollinate.

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Showy Lady’s Slippers Flowering

6-23-14 showy lady's slipper 139As with Pink and Yellow Lady’s Slippers, one of Showy Lady’s Slipper’s three petals is greatly modified into a large inflated pouch called the labellum. The two other petals attract pollinators with an alluring odor, but the insects that enter into this pouch are in for a disappointment, as lady’s slippers produce little or no nectar. Once inside, visiting insects are guided by very fine, slanting hairs on the inner surface of the pouch towards the flower’s pistil and stamens. Once it has entered the constricted passageway that leads to the reproductive parts, an insect cannot turn around and must pass by the pistil and stamens. Lady’s slippers rarely self-pollinate, so it is crucial that they not only attract, but also extract pollen from insects to achieve cross-pollination. Thanks to their structure, this happens more often than not. The flowering of Showy Lady’s Slippers peaks in Mid-June in central Vermont; if you know of a nearby fen (peat wetland that gets its water from rainfall and surface water), best visit it soon, as that’s where you’re most likely to find this species of orchid.

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Showy Orchis Flowering

6-4-14 showy orchis 267A walk in deciduous woodlands at this time of year could result in the sighting of several species of orchids, one of which, Showy Orchis (Galearis spectabili), has a stalk of several flowers which typically bear lavender hoods (one variant is white). Potential pollinators, most of which are long-tongued bumblebees, butterflies, moths and bees, land on a white petal below the hood which acts as a “landing pad.” The insect next heads for the tip of the nectar-filled spur located at the back of the flower. In getting there it brushes against, and often picks up, packets of pollen (pollinia) before moving on to the next blossom, where cross-pollination ideally takes place. (Thanks to Ginny Barlow for photo op.)

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Downy Rattlesnake Plantain Flowering

8-20-13 downy rattlesnake plantain 095Downy Rattlesnake Plantain (Goodyera pubescens) is an evergreen plant (each leaf lives for about four years) belonging to the Orchid family. It has broad, rounded leaves (like plantain) that bear a design somewhat reminiscent of snake skin. For the latter reason, it was used by Native Americans to treat snakebites. Botanists think it must have been used on bites from non-poisonous snakes, for medicinally it does not cure a venomous snake bite. This is the most common species of rattlesnake-plantain in New England, and can be identified easily by the broad central stripe down the middle of each leaf. At this time of year its tall flower stalk is bedecked with tiny, delicate, white orchids, each the size of a baby finger nail, which are well worth examining through a hand lens.


Helleborine Drugs Its Visitors

7-29-13 helleborine 029Helleborine (Epipactis helleborine) is a common woodland plant which is easily overlooked due to its inconspicuous, small, greenish-purple flowers. However, this modest member of the Orchid family brings pollination to a new level. Its structure is said to not be morphologically attractive to insects, so Helleborine has come up with another strategy to get its flowers pollinated. It produces nectar that contains several chemicals, including oxycodone, a drug which has a morphine-like effect on organisms that ingest it. When insects drink the oxycodone-laced nectar, they become sluggish, which prolongs the amount of time they spend at the flower, which, in turn, increases the chances that the flower will be pollinated.


Pink Lady’s Slippers Flowering

pink lady's slipper2   223Pink Lady’s Slippers (Cypripedium acaule), also known as Moccasin Flowers, differ from Yellow and Showy Lady’s Slippers in two fairly obvious ways. One is that the stalk the single flower is borne on bears no leaves. In addition, the pouch, or labellum, has a vertical slit running the length of it, rather than an oval opening on the top. Bumblebees are the only insect strong enough to push their way through this slit and are their main pollinators. In New England, almost 25% of the Pink Lady’s Slipper population have white flowers (see insert).


Yellow Lady’s Slipper Flowering

5-30-13 yellow lady's slipper 063There are only about three short weeks in the late spring when the blossoms of Yellow Lady’s Slippers grace our woodlands and wetlands. The production of an orchid is a complicated process. If pollination and fertilization are successful, hundreds of thousands of some of the smallest seeds of any flowers are scattered by the wind. The seeds of Yellow Lady’s Slippers (and other orchids), unlike those of most flowering plants, contain no food for the seedling plant. In addition, the coating surrounding the seed is extremely tough, so much so that the seed can’t germinate until Rhizoctonia fungi digest the outer coating, which allows the inner seed to access soil nutrients. This can take two years or more and then it may take another few years for the plant to produce a flower.


A Great Christmas Present!

If you’re looking for a present for someone that will be used year round, year after year, Naturally Curious may just fit the bill.  A relative, a friend, your child’s school teacher – it’s the gift that keeps on giving to both young and old!

One reader wrote, “This is a unique book as far as I know. I have several naturalists’ books covering Vermont and the Northeast, and have seen nothing of this breadth, covered to this depth. So much interesting information about birds, amphibians, mammals, insects, plants. This would be useful to those in the mid-Atlantic, New York, and even wider geographic regions. The author gives a month-by-month look at what’s going on in the natural world, and so much of the information would simply be moved forward or back a month in other regions, but would still be relevant because of the wide overlap of species. Very readable. Couldn’t put it down. I consider myself pretty knowledgeable about the natural world, but there was much that was new to me in this book. I would have loved to have this to use as a text when I was teaching. Suitable for a wide range of ages.”

In a recent email to me a parent wrote, “Naturally Curious is our five year old’s unqualified f-a-v-o-r-I-t-e  book. He spends hours regularly returning to it to study it’s vivid pictures and have us read to him about all the different creatures. It is a ‘must have’ for any family with children living in New England…or for anyone that simply shares a love of the outdoors.”

I am a firm believer in fostering a love of nature in young children – the younger the better — but I admit that when I wrote Naturally Curious, I was writing it with adults in mind. It delights me no end to know that children don’t even need a grown-up middleman to enjoy it!


Downy Rattlesnake-Plantain

If you look at the forest floor in coniferous woods you may well discover Downy Rattlesnake-Plantain (Goodyera pubescens ).  This evergreen rosette of broad, rounded leaves gets its name from the similarity of the shape of its leaves to those of plantain, a common lawn weed.  In fact, it is an orchid, not a plantain, and is the most common species of plantain in New England. It is distinguished from other species of rattlesnake-plantains by the bright silver markings on the leaves and the broad stripe down the center of the leaves.  Each leaf lasts for approximately four years.