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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

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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.

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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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