Monday, July 28, 2014

Botanizing the Florida Panhandle: Venus Fly Traps, Pitcher Plants, Sundews and more in Hosford Bog

A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of accompanying my partner and her family down to the Florida panhandle for a lazy week on the Gulf coast.  It felt great to sit around and relax with little to do but bury my nose in a book and relish the never ending supply of fresh seafood.  I'd been down to the sunshine state on several occasions as a child but those are all approaching a couple decades ago and well before any legitimate interest or passion for the outdoors had taken root in me.  So needless to say this time around had me salivating at the idea of what botanical treasures awaited my arrival.  I knew travelling so far south into such a contrasting region from my own would result in countless new life plants and unexpected surprises.  I was not disappointed!

I managed to get out and about for two of the days we spent down there and the following few posts are dedicated to the ecosystems and flora/fauna I found most interesting and memorable.  Even if I had been able to dedicate every waking moment of my week to exploring the wonders of the central panhandle, I'd still only been able to scratch the surface of the diversity to be had.  Regardless, I'm thankful and pleased with what I was able to come across and hope you enjoy this look back at one of the more fascinating botanical forays I've yet experienced.

Power line cut full of insectivorous plants

In the days, weeks leading up to the trip, I sent out requests to my extended botanical family in the south for good sites and places worth a visit while in the area.  They came through in marvelous fashion and a majority of their suggestions I had to put on the shelf for the next time around as there was no way I could fit everything into the very finite amount of time available.  However, one place I knew I had to prioritize above all else came from Flickr friend and brilliant botanist/photographer Alan Cressler - you might recall his name from back in May when he was kind enough to share with me the small whorled pogonia (Isotria medeoloides) in northern Georgia, so of course I was all ears when he had some killer suggestions.  The place was called Hosford bog and within was a plant species that I'd only ever dreamed of seeing.

Venus fly trap and other insectivorous plant species

The Venus fly trap (Dionaea muscipula) is a plant of legend and one damn near every single person you talk to would know and/or recognize.  It always amazes people to learn this seemingly exotic species only grows and naturally occurs in a small geographic area of North and South Carolina and that is it worldwide.  Not the jungles of Borneo, not the Amazon or the depths of the Congo but the good ol' U. S. of A.  The fact the hundreds of clumps of insect-eating horror before me weren't indigenous to the site but rather transplants from years ago did nothing to quell my excitement.  I'm sure I'll see them on their home turf someday but this would most definitely suffice for now.

Venus Fly Trap (Dionaea muscipula

I was too late to catch the fly traps in bloom but once again I was hardly disappointed, as in this unique case the vegetative state of the plant is the main draw.  Many of the plants exhibited a striking contrast between green and red on their modified leaves while others remained purely lime-colored.  You can gaze at all the online images of this plant you want, these included but nothing can prepare you for seeing their charm in the flesh.

All lime-green Venus fly trap (Dionaea muscipula)

Venus fly trap's "jaws" are modified leaves that have their inner surfaces covered in tiny trigger hairs that allow the plant to know when to snap shut with the hope of a meal inside.  Multiple trigger hairs must be touched in a relatively rapid succession for the plant to react and close in mere tenths of a second.  This prevents false captures from happening and precious energy being wasted should only one hair be moved by things such as raindrops or debris.

This brings up the topic of the morality of getting Venus fly traps to close as a means of entertainment.  You have to contemplate the amount of energy it must take for this plant to respond with such a rapid movement and then get nothing to replenish those stores.  It would be no different than playing a long game of fetch with your dog and then refusing it food and water afterwards.  Sure, it's just a plant but it's a pet peeve of mine to see people buy these in those humid plastic cubes at the local home improvement store only to have the plant dead and forgotten a week or two later.  

Venus Fly Trap (Dionaea muscipula
Venus Fly Trap (Dionaea muscipula

Even standing in front of them with the camera, I still felt like the Venus fly traps were plastic molds and not a real, living plant that had evolved over the countless millennia to be such a unique and fascinating being.  An interesting tidbit I would come to find out is the name "fly" trap is a bit of a misnomer in the fact it rarely utilizes flying insects as prey.  Ants, spiders, beetles, and other crawling arthropods are the dominate prey and something this specialized species has come to utilize most often.

Pink Sundew (Drosera capillaris) and Lycopodiella spp.

As fascinating as the Venus fly traps were, they were hardly the sole species of insectivorous plant to call the bog home.  The round scarlet clumps of basal leaves of the pink sundew (Drosera capillaris) were everywhere in the muckier, more saturated parts of the bog; their spatulate leaves glistening with insidious dew.  

Wet, open part of the bog with the endangered white pitcher plant (Sarracenia leucophylla)

If I came for the Venus fly traps then let it be said that I stayed for the white pitcher plants (Sarracenia leucophylla). The dry hummocks dotting the landscape of standing water were lined with their green-scarlet-white goodness and it was quite the task trying to take your eyes off their elegance.

White Pitcher Plant (Sarracenia leucophylla)

Back in Ohio, only one species of pitcher plant (S. purpurea) can call our state home and its diminutive stature and comparatively tame coloration is no match for its white-headed brethren.  Also known as scarlet pitcher plant, this taxon is listed as endangered in the state of Florida and currently under consideration for federal listing. Habitat loss/degradation, illegal picking/digging, and a very restricted geographic distribution all go hand-in-hand to make this gorgeous bug-eater a species on the brink.

White Pitcher Plant (Sarracenia leucophylla)
White Pitcher Plant (Sarracenia leucophylla)

It's almost as if an artist with surgical hands and infinite patience took each blank green pitcher and meticulously painted its head with a delicate scarlet venation over the snow white background.  Each pitcher was like a fingerprint in that no two were exactly the same, every one a unique pattern and individual work of art.

White Pitcher Plant (Sarracenia leucophylla)

Much like the Venus fly traps, the white pitcher plants were done blooming for the year and had their respective flower stalks in various stages of decay and desiccation.  Once again, the real value lay in the leaves rather than the flowers so it was another none issue.

Coastal Plain Yellow-eyed Grass (Xyris ambigua)
Coastal Plain Yellow-eyed Grass (Xyris ambigua)

An interesting aspect to pay attention to when traveling around is how the diversity of certain genera waxes and wanes depending on the region you're in.  For instance, the yellow-eyed grasses (Xyris spp.) are a pretty easy group to get under your belt in Ohio with our whopping two species.  But travel down to the Southeast and you're greeted by over 20 different taxa; including this robust and vigorous species I believe to be coastal plain yellow-eyed grass (X. ambigua).  It was quite prevalent throughout the bog and by far the showiest yellow-eyed grass I'd ever seen.

Mucky, saturated area of the bog with Drosera tracyi and Triantha racemosa

Despite the bog being rather small and long/narrow in shape, it was interesting to see how the plant associations changed with the level of saturation and water depth.  The open clay pans where shallow water flowed over it was always ensconced with dense clumps of Tracy's sundew (Drosera tracyi) and scatterings of white wands belonging to coastal false asphodel (Triantha racemosa).

Tracy's Sundew (Drosera tracyi)

You'd be hard pressed to find a more impressive sundew in North America than Tracy's.  Its long, green linear leaves seem to be on steroids and have to be the stuff of nightmares for any small insect.  Until recently it was regarded as a variety to the filiform sundew (D. filiformis) but was given full species status and can be told apart by its predominately-pure green color and super-sized appearance.

Coastal False Asphodel (Triantha racemosa)
Coastal False Asphodel (Triantha racemosa)

Despite having never seen this specific wildflower before, I knew right away the snow-white stalks hiding among the enormous sundews on the clay flats belonged to the Triantha genus.  The coastal false asphodel (T. racemosa) looks almost identical to the sticky false asphodel (T. glutinosa) that calls Ohio's high-quality fen meadows home and is separated by technical differences in the styles and fruit capsules.  Since the two species' ranges don't overlap it's a pretty easy split, with T. racemosa being a coastal plains species and T. glutinosa an interior and northern occurrence. 

Fringed Meadow Beauty (Rhexia petiolata)

In a case similar to the aforementioned yellow-eyed grasses, the Southeast and especially Florida is a hot bed of diversity for the meadow beauties (Rhexia spp.).  Of the handful of species I saw while on the panhandle, I think my favorite was the fringed meadow beauty (R. petiolata) blooming in the bog with the sundews, pitcher plants, and Venus fly traps.  Most meadow beauties tend to show off their reproductive parts proudly with over-sized stamens but the fringed meadow beauty was a much more shy and conservative species.

Carex glaucescens
Fuirena squarrosa

A sedge-head in Ohio is a sedge-head anywhere and everywhere, so it should come as little surprise I'd keep an eye out for some new and unusual Cyperaceae finds.  Oddly enough, the Southeast is hardly a breeding ground for Carex diversity and of the handful or so of species I found, the southern waxy sedge (C. glaucescens) was by far the best.  Making up for the lack of Carex was the presence of a sedge genus I'd long wanted to come across but never had the chance to living/working in Ohio.  The umbrella sedges (Fuirena spp.), or pineapple sedges as I came to affectionately call them are an oddball group that look like spiky footballs.  Doing my best to follow along through the keys, I believe this one to be the hairy umbrella sedge (F. squarrosa).

Orange Milkwort (Polygala lutea)

I went into my panhandle forays with little expectations or demands on what I wanted to see and figured just about everything would be new in one way or another and equally exciting.  However, one wildflower I had my fingers crossed on was the orange milkwort (Polygala lutea) and as luck would have it I got plenty of chances to soak in its charm.  The plants at Hosford bog seemed to grow in a more prostrate manner than is typical but that did nothing to take away from their delicious-looking, creamsicle appearance.

Black-and-Yellow Garden Spider (Arigope spp.)

As if the sundews, pitcher plants, and fly traps weren't enough, the bog was littered with black-and-yellow garden spiders (Arigope spp.) biding their time on the edges of their webs, waiting for a fly lucky enough to escape death-by-plant to run out of said luck and get caught in its stickiness.

I could easily go on about the wonders within Hosford bog, but this seems as good a place as any to call it quits for now and pick back up on another Florida panhandle botanical foray in the very near future.  The next couple posts will deal with the wondrous longleaf pine savannas of Apalachicola National Forest and the slew of phenomenal wildflowers that come with them.  Stay tuned!

Monday, July 21, 2014

I've Been North and I've Been South

Ah, it's good to be home!  As much fun as traveling and vacations are, it's an exhausting process by the end of it all and few things are better than walking through the door, dropping your bags to the ground, and slumping onto the couch.  Having said that, the fatigue and long hours on the road are worth it all when one comes back with more photographs, experiences, and memories than I could ever recount locked away in my brain and hard drive.

Longleaf pine savanna in Apalachicola National Forest on the panhandle of Florida

My two weeks away started with a trip down to the steamy confines of the Florida panhandle with my partner and her family for a week of excellent seafood and lazy beach days.  But being the botanist and naturalist I am, I couldn't stay away from the natural world for too long and was able to squeeze in some time to explore the entirely new-to-me ecosystems and flora the region had to offer.  From longleaf pine savanna to pitcher plants and even the famed Venus fly trap, Florida treated me well and I will be bringing you its wonder in the coming days from my visits to Blackwater River state forest and Apalachicola national forest.

Sleeping Bear Dunes national lakeshore along Lake Michigan in Leelanau county

The second half of my time away saw my partner and I leave the heat and humidity behind and travel nearly 1,300 miles north to the golden dunes and aqua waters of the Sleeping Bear Dunes national lakeshore of northern Michigan.  My family and I have spent a portion of nearly every summer up in this Great Lakes paradise and despite the repetitive nature of the trip it never gets old laying eyes on the region's ineffable beauty.  I was able to visit a number of my favorite haunts and reacquaint myself with the northern flora I've come to know and adore; including a backpacking trip to the crowned jewel of South Manitou Island nestled in Lake Michigan.  Once again I'll be bringing this trip in blog form in the coming days and weeks and hope you'll forgive any potential delay(s) in getting them out.  Free time and energy is a rare combination these days but I'll do my best to not use that as too much of an excuse!

I could not have had a more exciting, relaxing, and stimulating two weeks and can't think of a better way to digest and reminisce on the details than on here so stay tuned!

Friday, July 4, 2014

It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year

Of all the countless things your narrator looks forward to throughout any growing season, there's one moment in particular that stands out among the rest.  For a brief week or two in the latter half of June, a handful of special wet meadows in our state come alive with my favorite and most anticipated of wildflowers in the federally threatened eastern prairie fringed orchid (Platanthera leucophaea).

Handful of prairie fringed orchids in perfect flower in their open wet meadow habitat

I've taken the time to publish a post commemorating their culmination of beauty each of the last few years and see no reason to give up on the tradition anytime soon.  You can view the previous posts and dig deeper into this great rarity's past by clicking the links HERE and HERE for more information.  There's just something about this magnificent species that I struggle to put into words but the least I can do is try, right?

Eastern Prairie Fringed Orchid

Only being 15 minutes or so away from my childhood home in west-central Ohio, the site and plants featured in this post and the ones previous are a quick and easy visit and allow for plenty of opportunities to soak in their detail and extraordinary charm.  An evening visit is the best of all as the late-June sun sits low in the sky and its last vestiges of sunlight seem to make the orchids glow in the twilight.  The allure of their off-white, creamish flowers is accented by a soft but sugared aroma that is nocturnally emitted and used to attract the plant's nighttime hawk moth pollinators.

Portrait of the rare prairie fringed orchid

The eastern prairie fringed orchid was once much more common across its Great Lakes and Midwest distribution with accounts from the early pioneers and settlers speaking of wet prairie and meadows ensconced with dense blazes of tall spikes of white flowers come late June into July.  Since then, habitat loss and degradation from both agricultural pressure and the forces of natural succession has pushed this species to the brink of extinction with nearly all of its former grandeur long lost to the plow or tile.  Its affinity for deep, rich, and moist soil was undoubtedly its own undoing as farmers replaced these marvelous orchids with their corn, soybeans, and wheat.

Impressive specimen of prairie fringed orchid

If I was ever asked to pick and elaborate on my favorite moment and view of my home state it would be an incredibly difficult and painful process to narrow down but I would most likely ultimately settle on the prairie fringed orchid in perfect full bloom out across a wide expanse of grasses, sedges, and rushes.  I don't expect everyone to appreciate let alone understand my passion for this plant or why its beauty intoxicates me the way it does; heck, I don't even know why exactly it strikes such a chord with me but it does and I am eternally thankful for that.  With as busy and hectic as life often is, it's important that we all seek out small opportunities of peace and happiness where we can feel whole and as one with everything else.  They may be fleeting and few and far between but even the smallest of things can have the biggest of impacts in our lives and for your narrator, any time out in the field with these wonders is time well spent.

A friend of mine recently mentioned that the great orchid mind that was Fred Case used to say that the blooming of the prairie fringed orchid was a bittersweet moment each year where the culmination of another growing season has come and gone and ushered in the waning sunlight and slow but steady return of fall and winter.  Wise words worth taking to heart if you ask me.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Brown's Lake Bog State Nature Preserve

"There are few habitats I love to explore and delve into more than the peaty goodness that is a sphagnum bog". Those words were written down a mere two weeks ago to open a post on a spectacular bog in southeastern Michigan and your narrator meant every word.  So while up in northern Ohio this past weekend with botanical companions Daniel Boone and Tanner Morris to see the previously shared round-leaved orchids at Clear Fork Gorge state nature preserve, it was an easy decision to make the most of our time in the area by making a short additional drive to do some boggin'.

Sphagnum vegetation mat at Brown's Lake Bog state nature preserve

Brown's Lake Bog state nature preserve is located in Wayne county and one of the best remaining sphagnum bogs in the entire state.  Its millennia-old floating vegetation mat on the margins of the open kettle pond is home to a slew of typical bog associates and acidophiles, many of which are quite rare and state-listed species found in few other places.  The bog itself has been on conservationists radars for decades and has been under the protection and stewardship of the Ohio chapter of the Nature Conservancy for almost 50 years and is a designated National Natural Landmark.

Surrounding swamp forest at Brown's Lake Bog

The bog and open kettle pond are surrounded by a lush swamp forest that is the result of previous bog habitat reaching its climax community.  The open nature of the floating sphagnum mat is only a temporary chapter in the life of any bog and gradually fills in with peat and woody vegetation as the forces of natural succession chug along. Given enough time and no intervention, the kettle pond at Brown's Lake Bog will eventually look identical to the photo above and give little evidence it ever existed in its current form.

Red maple, silver maple, and ash make up the majority of the swamp's canopy at Brown's Lake with spicebush (Lindera benzoin), winterberry (Ilex verticillata), smooth alder (Alnus serrulata), cinnamon fern (Osmundastrum cinnamomeum), crested wood fern (Dryopteris cristata), sensitive fern (Onoclea sensibilis), and bluejoint grass (Calamagrostis canadensis) occurring throughout its lush understory.

Water Pennywort (Hydrocotyle americana)
Water Pennywort (Hydrocotyle americana)

One of the more interesting and certainly inconspicuous wildflowers to thrive in the mucky, acidic soils of the swamp woods is the American water pennywort (Hydrocotyle americana).  Its creeping habit can form dense colonies in suitable conditions, where you're much more likely to notice its round, scalloped leaves and completely overlook the tiny flower clusters located in the leaf axils.

Open water of the kettle pond behind a stand of swamp loosestrife

Breaking out of the perimeter swamp forest finds the ever-shrinking 7-acre kettle pond and its surrounding bog mat.  Succession has done a good job of crowding out most open areas of the mat with woody plants like poison sumac (Toxicodendron vernix) and highbush blueberry (Vaccinium corymbosum) along with dense clumps of cinnamon fern but some small, yet significant areas remain free enough to support a diversity of plant life that requires the space and sunlight.

Sphagnum moss is ready for its closeup

Sphagnum moss is the backbone of any bog and a large reason why they exist in the first place.  This genus of moss has the amazing ability to hold exponentially more water weight than the dry weight of the moss itself; in some cases as much as 26 times its dry weight.  Due to the presence of phenolic compounds in the moss's cell walls and the natural anaerobic conditions of a bog, decay and decomposition hardly takes place and instead the moss accumulates on itself as it grows and dies and creates "peat".  As the dead organic matter builds up, further acidification takes places as the peat takes up cations from the environment (such as calcium and magnesium) and releases hydrogen in the process.  This all adds up to create the very specialized habitat conditions required for many bog species to occur and persist.

Scattering of Rose Pogonia (Pogonia ophioglossoides) orchid

One of those species is the spectacular bubblegum pink rose pogonia orchid (Pogonia ophioglossoides).  A dense display of these orchids can be seen on the bog mat at Brown's Lake each mid-June and is well worth the trip.

Rose Pogonia (Pogonia ophioglossides)

Also known as the snake-mouth orchid, rose pogonia is a threatened species in Ohio that only occurs in a handful of sites where its habitat requirement of an acidic substrate and constant water supply can be met.  It's no wonder then that this species does so well on the bog mat at Brown's Lake.

Rose Pogonia (Pogonia ophioglossides)

The orchids only occur on the most open and wet parts of the vegetation mat where competition from other plants is the lowest.  They are easily displaced as shade and cramped conditions increase and are at the mercy of any management team responsible for keeping their habitat cleared and open.

Rose Pogonia (Pogonia ophioglossides)
Rose Pogonia (Pogonia ophioglossides)

Not many of our wild orchids seem to bother with being fragrant but the rose pogonia apparently missed the memo on that point.  They emit a refreshing and pleasantly sweet aroma that is reminiscent of raspberries, making them a worthwhile discovery for not only your eyes but your nose as well.

Northern Pitcher Plants
Pitcher with its meal

No bog is complete without the presence of the quintessential pitcher plant among the orchids, sedges, and sphagnum.  Brown's Lake is home to not only the carnivorous northern pitcher plant (Sarracenia purpurea) but another bug-eater in the round-leaved sundew (Drosera rotundifolia) as well.

Large Cranberry (Vaccinium macrocarpon)

Another acidophile no bog should be without is the cranberry (Vaccinium macrocarpon).  This trailing woody vine is adorned with tiny white flowers come summer which are then replaced by tart cranberries a few months later. They are edible but be forewarned: they are quick to make you pucker even when ripe.

Pod Grass (Scheuchzeria palustris)

Of all the vascular plants to call the bog mat at Brown's Lake home, this next taxon has to be the weirdest and most rare of them all.  Scattered among the rose pogonias and pitcher plants is something called pod grass or simply Scheuchzeria (Scheuchzeria palustris), a monocot that is the only member of its genus and family (Scheuchzeriaceae).  It occurs throughout the northern hemisphere in cold, boggy habitats and is currently listed as an endangered species in Ohio with Brown's Lake being one of the very last places it occurs.  Most would hardly take the time or opportunity to notice it and I suppose I can't blame them but I find its unique and strange nature too quirky to ignore.

Prickly Bog Sedge (Carex atlantica var. atlantica)

It wouldn't be a proper bog blog post without some recognition of the Cyperaceae members present within the sphagnum paradise, now would it?  Sedges are largely shunned and ignored by most for their inherent difficulty to identify to species and dizzying diversity but I'm helplessly fascinated and interested in them.  The one pictured above is the nicely named prickly bog sedge (Carex atlantica var. atlantica).

Woolly Fruit Sedge (Carex lasiocarpa)
Mud Sedge (Carex limosa)

The woolly fruit sedge (C. lasiocarpa) is a potentially-threatened sedge species that can be found in both fen and bog habitats despite their respective pH differences and is one rarely seen in fruit for one reason or another.  In fact, this visit was the first time I've ever seen it with intact perigynia.  The mud sedge (C. limosa) should look familiar as it was featured on the Michigan bog post as well but being an endangered species in Ohio and this site being one of its last, it was worth another mention.

Arrow Arum (Peltandra virginica)

Like the aforementioned American water pennywort and its much more conspicuous leaves, the arrow arum's (Peltandra virginica) flowers can be easily ignored or overlooked.  Most botanically-savvy people should recognize this species as belonging to the arum family (Araceae) for the presence of a spadix and spathe, much like its related jack-in-the-pulpit (Arisaema triphyllum) and skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus) brethren.

Arrow Arum (Peltandra virginica)

This is about as open and "showy" as the arrow arum flowers get with their spadices almost fully enclosed within the protective spathe.  Despite containing calcium oxalate crystals like many other members of the arum family, the Native Americans used to utilize its rhizomes for food but only after many hours of cooking and repeated water changes to leach out the crystals.

I wish Brown's Lake bog wasn't so far away from where I live, as I would love to explore this site at different points in the year and experience the changing seasons and plants as the months roll by.  June is the only time your narrator has ever visited to specifically coincide with the peak bloom of the rose pogonias but fingers crossed a late summer or fall trip can be arranged to catch this wondrous place in a whole new light.

Sunday, June 22, 2014

A Quirky Orchid Under Old-Growth Pine and Hemlock

If you're a first time reader and/or visitor to this page, I thank you for dropping in and hope you enjoy your stay. For everyone else, whether it be my long-time readers or recent followers you should probably know by now of my obsession with our wild orchids.  It's a passion that only increases as the weeks and months go by after all.  I hope to feature or share each and every one of Ohio's 47 indigenous taxa on here at least once as time goes on.  The one that happens to be featured in this post also happens to be one of my favorites.  I know, every other orchid species is "one of my favorites" but this one is definitely on the top ten list.

Dan deep in thought under the old-growth white pines and hemlocks

The hike to the site for our upcoming quirky orchid is one of my favorites in Ohio, as it takes you into one of the rarest habitats our state has left to offer.  Along a north facing bluff overlooking the deep sandstone gorge of the Clear Fork of the Mohican is a very small but very significant old-growth white pine and hemlock forest full of ancient and towering specimens.  Above my good friend and botanical companion for the day, Daniel Boone pauses under a particularly profound white pine to ponder the beauty of the forest.

Soaring white pine
Stout hemlocks

Stout and straight with hardly a taper is the rule in this grove and that makes it truly a sight to behold.  Even on the clearest and sunniest of days the forest floor remains cool and dark with its lofty canopy keeping the sun at bay overhead.  The melodic notes of the veery, hermit thrush, and black-throated green warbler are never far from your ear during this time of year and add another layer to your sensory overload.

Round-leaved orchid under the pines and hemlocks

Due to the aforementioned low-light conditions, the forest floor is sparsely vegetated with a large ratio of the ground merely a bed of fallen pine needles and oak leaves among a scattering of intermediate wood fern (Dryopteris intermedia).  Hardly anything seems able to live, let alone thrive in such conditions but the round-leaved orchid (Platanthera orbiculata) has managed to find a way. 

Round-leaved Orchid (Platanthera orbiculata)

Its large, round basal leaves are hard to miss among the detritus when purely vegetative but there's really no overlooking the plant when in full glorious flower.  It's ghostly cream-green glow beckons any willing soul toward its wand of bizarre looking flowers arranged in perfect fashion along a scape.

Close up of the raceme of round-leaved orchid

In my opinion, no other Ohio orchid's individual flower structure is more out-of-this-world than the round-leaved orchid's.  In something out of a drug-induced vision of the late Hunter S. Thompson, the flowers look like scurrying demonic, bat-headed beings on four legs with a tail, all ascending back up into their alien mothership.  Anyone care to share what they see in the flowers?

Such weird looking flowers
Aerial view of the round-leaved orchid

Orchids have the reputation for being some of the more fickle and finicky wildflowers out there and that stereotype definitely holds true with this species, at least in your narrator's experience.  I've visited this site annually for the past four years and it's certainly had its boom and bust years.  In 2011 the population had a mass bloom with dozens of plants bearing flowering stalks of varying size and vigor.  Subsequent visits in 2012 and 2013 produced essentially no flowering individuals with the most recent trip in 2014 bearing a good amount in flower but not approaching that of 2011.  

A spectacular specimen of the round-leaved orchid

Living in such a low-light environment, it's no surprise this species would come to evolve and bear such over-sized leaves and have a staggered bloom cycle from year to year.  Only a tiny fraction of the total available sunlight beaming down at the canopy penetrates through and reaches this particularly bleak forest floor, so any plants below are going to need all the help they can to keep their glucose factories humming along.  Sending up a flower stalk is an enormous allocation of energy for each individual plant so it makes perfect sense that a round-leaved orchid would take several years off between reproduction events to accumulate and replenish its energy stores before repeating the process.  

Round-leaved orchid portrait

The round-leaved orchid is predominately a species of the coniferous hardwood and mixed forests of the Great Lakes region, the Northeast, and all across northern Canada.  It does occur at higher elevations in the Appalachians as far south as Tennessee and North Carolina as well as in limited parts of the northern Rockies.  Here in Ohio, it occurs throughout the northeastern quarter of the state in a variety of mesic-dry conifer and mixed forests.  At Clear Fork Gorge it seems to prefer the oldest areas of the white pine/hemlock/chestnut oak forest accompanied by a thick duff of conifer needles where little else occurs.

Round-leaved orchid from 2011.
Round-leaved orchid from 2011.

As impossible as it is to see every orchid, every year going forward, I do my best to revisit each species because I'm just that nuts I guess?  Probably, but also because few things are more fun and get me more excited than the prospect of seeing an old friend again and these orchids were long overdue for a sit down.

Tanner getting acquainted with the round-leaved orchids

Along with Dan on this foray was my friend and exceptional field botanist in his own right, Tanner Morris who has a soft spot for our wild orchids as well.  He had never had the chance to see and photograph this species before so I was extra pleased this population finally came back to life this season.  Not to speak for Tanner himself but I think it's safe to assume he couldn't have enjoyed the experience more.  Hopefully there will be some around next year to see as barely even 12 hours removed, I'm already anticipating the next time.