Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Plethora of Platanthera (Orchids)

Geeze...say that tongue-twister blog title five times fast!  After reading this post and enjoying the photographs that accompany it, it won't just be your tongue all knotted up but your eyes as well.  These orchids are sure to grab the attention of even the most inexperienced or mild of botanists, let alone someone as crazy as your blogger.  A couple weekends ago myself and brilliant botanists and great friends Dan Boone and Raymond Cranfill journeyed to the steamy confines of southern Kentucky in search of some stunning summer flora.  I was looking forward to all the possibilities and interesting finds that were sure to happen but I couldn't help but be most excited about the promise of Platanthera orchids!

Our first stop was a place owned and managed by the Kentucky chapter of the Nature Conservancy called Hazeldell Meadow.  This little 32 acre gem is tucked away in the rolling, forested hills of Pulaski county and is Kentucky's only highland rim wet barrens/prairie.  Surrounded by a mature forest of Maple, Beech and Oak is an open field of grasses and wildflowers with a few being quite rare within the state.  We timed our arrival and visit to coincide perfectly with the mass blooming of possibly the eastern United States most breath-taking plant, the Yellow Fringed Orchid (Platanthera ciliaris).

Hazeldell Meadow
Platanthera ciliaris beginning to open

As we came to the edge of the meadow and broke free from the shade and cover of the forest our eyes were met with the most jaw-dropping display of brilliant orange scattered across the opening.  Hundreds if not thousands of yellow fringed orchids were in full bloom and covered with early morning due.  I knelt down to set up the camera equipment and couldn't help but just stare out across the barren and shake my head with amazement.  It's not everyday you get to see something like this; something that gets your heart racing and heads trembling with excitement and pure adrenaline.

Close-up of the fringed flowers
Platanthera ciliaris in full flower

This particular orchid is state-listed as threatened in Ohio where I've seen it growing in select power line cuts of Shawnee state forest.  In Kentucky it's not common but not rare either if you know where to look and Hazeldell Meadow is one of the best.  These really should be called orange fringed orchids considering their sharp color is much, much more reminiscent of orange than yellow.  If you click on the photographs you can see them in a larger resolution.  You can really see the detail of the dew clinging to the inflorescences!

A bird's eye view of the raceme
Absolutely gorgeous!

Platanthera ciliaris grows in a variety of moist, open habitats from meadows, prairies and savannahs to woodlands, flats and roadsides.  Each plant can grow to nearly three feet tall topped with a single raceme of up to 40 individual inflorescences, all deeply fringed and unmistakeably orchid-like.  Orchids never cease to amaze me in their delicacy and unbelievable structure.  How on earth did these plants evolve to have such an amazingly designed flower, each lip so deeply cut and fringed.  Whatever greater power there is out there is truly the greatest botanist of them all!

After plenty of time in the yellow fringed orchid paradise and more pictures than I could count it was time to pile back into the car and make for our next destination.  Lying a bit further to the southeast of Hazeldell Meadow is Daniel Boone national forest, another botanical hot spot full of exciting flora and fauna.  Plus it's not everyday you get to explore its depths with the direct descendent of the man himself.  I count myself among the lucky few to say I've been in Daniel Boone national forest with the Daniel Boone!

Even though I may moan and groan about mankind's unforgiving stain and destruction of the natural world I can't really complain about power line cuts.  There's just something about this man-made habitat that houses countless rare and fascinating plant life.  Really, it's the clearing and opening of the environment that allows these plants to survive and flourish under the strengthened light but for once I can thank our species for its need to conquer by creating and maintaining the opportunity for these plants to exist and persist.

Power line cut in Daniel Boone N.F.

Our sights were set on a specific undulating power line cut that houses one of Kentucky's rarest and most intriguing orchids.  A low-lying point within the cut contained a sphagnum seep which has created a very interesting and specific habitat for many other cool plants along with our desired species.  Stepping into the soggy mat of sphagnum and Sensitive Ferns (Onoclea sensibilis) I was immediately immersed in a world of unique and rare flora and circumstances.  It wasn't long before my eyes began to pick out brilliant white stalks from the surrounding green vegetation.  These belonged to the bounty of my search, the White Fringeless Orchid (Platanthera integrilabia)!

Platanthera integrilabia
Platanthera integrilabia

I obviously have a knack for rare and beautiful plants and it's always a pleasure when the two are combined into such a perfect mixture such as this wildflower.  I'm most versed in Ohio's native orchids but I am always anxious and excited to see any other species indigenous to our continent's substrate.  One of the first things I noticed about this wildflower was its exceptionally long nectar spur.  You'd have to have a pretty darn long proboscis to achieve sweet success from these blooms.  Some people see the face/body of a monkey in this plant which has earned it the other common name of the Monkey-face Orchid.

Platanthera integrilabia is currently under consideration for federal listing as an endangered plant due to its range-wide rarity and fragile ecosystem requirement.  It was once more common in bogs and acidic seepage areas throughout the southern Appalachians but habitat loss and alteration has decimated historical populations.  It is most common on the Cumberland Plateau of Kentucky and Tennessee, which is where I happened to meet and greet this remarkable plant.

White Fringeless Orchid
Close-up of its 'monkey face'

The flowers, like many other Platanthera species of orchids, are nocturnally scented to best attract their pollinating moth friends.  I stooped down for a quick whiff but caught only a light fragrance that I'm sure explodes with potency as the sun wanes.  While the sphagnum seep was under an acre in size and beginning to fill with woody plants like River Birch (Betula nigra) and Hazel Alder (Alnus serrulata) I estimated well over 200 flowering plants with the number perhaps being closer to 300.  They rarely existed singly but rather in small to large clusters in open areas of the sphagnum and always close to the running spring water carving its way through the seep.  As I admired one of the largest white fringeless plants I'd seen I caught a different Platanthera species blooming from a creeping mat of another very rare Kentucky plant.

Club-spur orchid and S. Bog Clubmoss
Platanthera clavellata

Hiding among the maturing, spore-containing strobili of the endangered Southern Bog Clubmoss (Lycopodiella appressa) were the pale green flowers of the Club-spur Orchid (Platanthera clavellata).  Also known as the Green Woodland orchid, this semi-frequent and charming little plant can be found in a variety of moist and acidic situations.  Despite being one of the more common wetland orchids it is seldom seen by the casual observer.  Its pale green color and small size help it blend in with the bushy and thickly vegetated habitat it prefers to grow in.

After a satisfactory amount of time with the white fringeless and club-spur orchids it was time to search out the last of the Platanthera plants we had our hopes set on seeing.  Once again we would be scanning the ground in a power line cut for another Kentucky threatened species that was sure to steal the show.  Following a bit of searching and some false alarms from the orange glow of neighboring yellow fringed orchids the cherry on top of our botanical sundae came into view, the Yellow Crested Orchid (Platanthera cristata).

Platanthera cristata
Platanthera cristata

At first glance it's not hard to understand someone confusing these with the previously shared P. ciliaris but with a closer look they are easily separated.  While these photographs do nothing to help differentiate the two by size, the yellow crested is about half the dimensions of the yellow fringed.  Everything about this plant is smaller.  Not only are the individual inflorescences tiny but take notice at the amount of fringing of the lip.  Quite a difference from the heavier and deeper cuts of P. ciliaris.  The yellow crested orchid is an Atlantic coastal endemic and much more common as you get into the coastal states of the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico.  Interestingly, the plant seems to follow the Cumberland Plateau up into Tennessee before just barely slipping into Kentucky; creating arguably the furthest inland populations of the species.

Aerial view of Platanthera cristata
A passing, pollinating mosquito

I've gotten into the habit of taking pictures from above the plant on the Platanthera genera of orchids.  It really gives an amazing vantage of the symmetry and architecturally perfect arrangement of the inflorescences.  As I continued to photograph my favorite of the half dozen plants in bloom, a tiny little mosquito (I think, I'm no entomologist!) landed at the top of the raceme and posed for a shot or two.  For the next few minutes I watched him buzz around to each flower and land on the slightly fringed lip.  He would then climb into the inflorescence in an attempt at a sugary meal.  I say 'he' because if memory serves me right, male mosquitoes feed on the nectar and juices of plants while the females go after mammalian blood.

Thunder began to rumble in the distance with the occasional flash of lighting on the horizon as we loaded up the car and began the three hour journey back to Cincinnati.  I picked a few ticks off my pant leg, wiped the sweat from my brow and let the air conditioning hit my reddened and hot face.  Southern Kentucky on a hot, muggy August day is rarely the best place to spend time during this time of the year but who can pass up on an opportunity to see and photograph some of nature's rarest and most incredible plants?  Certainly not me!  It was worth all the insect bites, caterpillar stings and sweat in the eyes to achieve the reward I sought.  As our car got ever closer to home and further from the days finds I already was looking forward to seeing their gorgeous faces next year!

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Missouri Ironweed (Vernonia missurica)

As I become a more experienced and knowledgeable botanist it's hard not to play favorites when it comes to certain families and genera of vascular plants.  By now you all know of my passion and deep-rooted love for the wild orchids (Orchidaceae), which more than likely would be placed first on my list of most admired.  There are plenty more that keep those rare and delicate plants company on that list, such as the Ironweeds (Vernonia spp.).  They aren't the showiest nor the rarest species to be found in our wide array of native flora but there's just something about them that really directs my focus to understanding and studying them.

About a week ago I published a post starting my treatment on the Vernonia genus in Ohio and its four members.  It can be found by clicking the link HERE for those interested in getting a grasp on the Tall Ironweed (V. gigantea) and the Prairie Ironweed (V. fasciculata).  I mentioned in that post that I would be attempting to collect, photograph and study the two remaining species that have been recorded from our state.  A difficult task when taking into consideration the rarity of the latter two species; Missouri Ironweed (V. missurica) and New York Ironweed (V. noveboracensis) inside Ohio's borders.  This past Sunday I made the journey to Daviess County in southwestern Indiana with high hopes of finding the third species of Ironweed I'd like to discuss, the Missouri Ironweed (V. missurica).

Missouri Ironweed in native habitat
Flowehead(s) of Missouri Ironweed

My destination was one of the areas most pristine and diverse nature preserves in the state known as Prairie Creek Barrens.  A large expanse of wet prairie containing numerous rare and fascinating plant species has survived years of land abuse from the surrounding agricultural landscape to remain intact and well managed to keep the rare ecosystem thriving.  I plan on doing a separate post about my experiences with the other gorgeous flora of the preserve but my focus was directed at the tall wands of purple swaying in the morning breezes.  At first glance Missouri Ironweed looks almost identical to the much more common Tall Ironweed.  As I mentioned in the previous Ironweed post, habitat differentiation goes out the window with these species as they all prefer wet to moist expanses of open ground with plenty of sunlight and commonly grow together.  In fact, there was Tall Ironweed to be found growing amongst the Missouri in Prairie Creek Barrens.

Taking a look at the corymb of flowerheads it's still not too easy to differentiate from the more common Tall Ironweed.  Both have very similar rayless disk flowers of a magenta color, tightly overlapped phyllaries that look very much alike as is the spacing and density of the flowerheads.  The number of individual disk flowers per flowerhead can be used to separate the two.  Missouri tends to have more, with an average over 30, while Tall Ironweed typically has a number less than 30.  A close glance at the inflorescence's stem or peduncle can begin to clear the air.  On Tall Ironweed the stem is generally finely pubescent if not a bit more smooth and glabrous.  On Missouri Ironweed the stem is noticeable hairy with a dense covering of wooly hairs.  Hair is the name of the game with Missouri Ironweed as you'll come to see when looking at the rest of the plant.

Glancing at the distribution map for this species it's pretty evident this species is most common in the Mississippi river region, with some disjunct populations to the east and west.  Ohio lies at the eastern edge of the range where it's only known to occur in the Oak Openings area (Lucas County) as well as a remnant tall grass prairie patch along the railroad (Clark County).  There have also been recorded collections of a natural hybrid between Missouri and Tall Ironweed in several northwestern counties.  This has lead to some botanists and authors to question the true genetic integrity of Missouri Ironweed in Ohio.  Having never seen Ohio's alleged true V. missurica I really have no opinion in the matter but can understand the skeptical outlook of the doubting minds.

Missouri Ironweed's leaves
heavy pubescence on underside of leaf

The best means to tell the two nearly identical Tall and Missouri Ironweeds apart is to take a look at the stem and the undersides of the leaves, especially at the petiole.  The leaves are arranged alternately and lanceolate in shape with serrated margins like all other Ohio Vernonia's.  Where the differences begin is very noticeable and heavy pubescence of the undersides of the leaves, especially at the petiole.  The numerous small hairs run along the veins and give off a crystalline look to the emerald leaves.  If you remember the picture of the underside of the Tall Ironweed's leaves they lack the obvious pubescence with just a very conservative scattering of hairs, if any at all.

Missouri Ironweed leaves
Missouri Ironweed leaves

The pictures above really drive the nail home at just how hairy the undersides of the Missouri Ironweed's leaves are.  From a ways back the leaves give off a silvery-green sheen from all the hairs.  The stem is another great place to look for the persistence of hairs on the Missouri Ironweed.  Tall Ironweed's stems can range from glabrous to finely pubescent but rarely anything like the display of hairs the Missouri Ironweed puts on.

Missouri Ironweed's stem
Magenta flowerheads of the Ironweed

In my experience the hairs on the stems of Missouri Ironweed are a whitish-clear color while the hairs of the Tall Ironweed are a purplish-brown color.  I've never read or seen where this is a definitive difference and used in the genera's keys, just an observation I've made in my careful examination and breaking down of the species.  I hope to make a trip down into Kentucky to get the fourth and final Ohio Vernonia, the New York Ironweed (V. noveboracensis) that I can add to this treatment and breakdown of the species.  New York Ironweed was only collected once in Ohio over a century ago and has since been marked as extirpated.  It's very distinct phyllaries end in a long, thread-like hair that can quickly separate itself from the rest of the Ironweed's.  Once again I'm sure this wasn't the most fun post for the majority of the faithful readers but it's been fun for me to delve into this genera and really get a hands on understanding of what sets these beautiful and unique plants apart.  Until next time!

Thursday, August 11, 2011

The Federally Endangered Michigan Monkeyflower

It feels good to be back and posting on a regular schedule again.  While I wouldn't grow accustomed to a post every day or two I can still tell the creative juices and ideas are flowing smoothly through my brain.  About a month ago I spent a week up in northern Michigan and would like to share the story of a very fascinating plant and probably the rarest plant I've ever seen to date.

Leelanau County, Michigan has been my summer vacation spot literally all my life.  A week or two each summer would be spent fishing the lakes for bass and pike; the cold, spring fed streams for trout; swimming in the chilly waters of Lake Michigan searching for petosky stones and soaking in the sun and beauty of northern Michigan.  I'll always cherish my time up there with my parents and brother and look forward to those days renewed each summer.  My footprints in the sand along the beach may be quick to wash away but all the memories made are etched in stone in my brain.

On the southern shores of Big Glen Lake

Over the past few summers I have spent more and more time exploring the fascinating ecosystems and flora this unique area of Michigan has to offer.  I did a two-part series on the the natural history and flora of South Manitou Island that can be found HERE and HERE if interested.  One of my biggest goals this past summer was to observe and photograph the federally endangered Michigan Monkeyflower (Mimulus michiganensis), Michigan's rarest plant.  After some research and phone calls to knowledgeable botanists from the area I was turned onto one of the best places to see this mega rarity.

Spring seep emitting from the hillside
Acidic sphagnum seep on the lake shore

I was told to head to the southern shoreline of Big Glen Lake outside the little village of Glen Arbor.  There I would find a park and picnic area that fortunately preserves one of the only publicly protected populations of the monkeyflower.  I walked down to the lake and begin to wade into the water along the shoreline looking for a series of springs that emitted from the hillside down into Big Glen.  Just a bit down the shore I saw the area open up into a mat of sphagnum, jewelweed (Impatiens spp.) and sedges (mostly Carex flava, one of the favorites!) speckled with hundreds of yellow dots.  Target acquired!

Mimulus michiganensis
Mimulus michiganensis

Ohio only has two native species of Mimulus.  Both the Winged Monkeyflower (M. alatus) and Allegheny Monkeyflower (M. ringens) are widespread across the state and easily told apart by the color of their flowers, length of the peduncle and whether or not the leaves are sessile.  Michigan has an additional four species of Mimulus, including the scarcest of them all which I happened to be staring directly in the face.  Just how rare is this wildflower?  Pretty rare!

Entire distribution of M. michiganensis (courtesy michiganflora.net)

The only plant entirely endemic to Michigan, this monkeyflower can be found in six counties with only 12 known populations still in existance.  It only grows in cold, calcareous springs, streams and seeps in northern White Cedar swamps as well as along the shorelines of lakes where a constant supply of fresh groundwater is present.  Nearly every known population of this plant occurs near or on the shorelines of the Great Lakes.  This unfortunate choice of habitat type has done this plant more harm than good due to mankind's affinity for building their summer homes and resorts on top of this rare ecosystem.  A large majority of the 12 populations grow on private land where management and preservation concerns are up to the landowner, who often times don't understand the little yellow flower that blooms every June and July near their boat and jet ski dock needs every ounce of protection it can get.  Several populations have recently met their fate due to construction and altered hydrology of the site.  Their constant need for cold, flowing spring water makes them very vulnerable to even nearby construction projects that could potentially change this necessity of life.

Mimulus michiganensis
Mimulus michiganensis

It was long treated as a variety to the more western M. glabratus, which barely makes it east of the Mississippi river.  It has recently been given full species status after new genetic research and testing along with DNA sequencing found it to be a separate species only found in this select area of Michigan.  Further research done at Michigan State University suggests this species originated from an ancient hybrid between M. glabratus var. jamesii and M. guttatus; two other Michigan indigenous, yellow-flowered Mimulus'.

Mimulus michiganensis
Mimulus michiganensis

The gorgeous yellow, snapdragon-like flowers bloom come June and July in the leaf axils towards the top of the stem.  Upon closer inspection you can see an irregular scattering of orange/red dots on the three-lobed lower lip.  You can tell this apart from the very similar M. glabratus var. jamesii by it's much smaller oppositely arranged leaves that are also more deltoid in shape while M. glabratus var. jamesii has rounded leaves.  The flowers of the Michigan monkeyflower produce very little viable pollen and thus produce very little seed.  This plant relies almost entirely on its stolons to reproduce vegetatively, creating dense colonies of clones.

Mimulus michiganensis
Mimulus michiganensis

I quickly learned just how careful I had to be when around these plants.  The saturated soil was very mucky and mixed with sand making for a very unstable and soft substrate.  I didn't want to create too many holes or compact the soil so I kept to the channels of water cutting through the population.  It was just so cool to be in one of only a dozen still extant places on Earth to see this plant!  I've seen many, many rare plants to Ohio's soils and a few rare to everywhere's soils but nothing close to this.  The large clonal mat spread amongst the sedges and jewelweed was a large piece of the pie of what's left.  It's plants like these that need our help and respect more than anything.  Many probably look at this and say, "who cares?  It's just one plant that serves no real purpose, I wouldn't miss it".  Maybe they're right, but when you turn your shoulder on one species you start an excuse for the next one and the next.  Before we know it we could be living in a world largely devoid of what Mother Nature deemed proper and necessary to its development and structure.  Hopefully when I return to these shores years from now with my potential future family I hope I can take them to this spot and show them these wonderful yellow beauties.  Tell them of their battle for survival and their continued success as one of the rarest plants in North America.  I won't hold my breath as more and more people want bigger docks with more boats and houses closer to the shore but maybe, just maybe these will hold on for future generations to appreciate.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

The Tale of the Three-birds

"Rise up this morning, smile with the rising sun.  Three little birds pitched by my doorstep.  Singing sweet songs of melodies pure and true, singing 'this is my message to you-ou-ou...'"  If I didn't know any better I'd say Bob Marley was singing about the rare and lovely Three-birds orchid (Triphora trianthophora) and not the little feathered friends that would greet him each morning to eat the marijuana seeds he would toss as he rolled the day's first joint.  At least that's how the story goes...

This past Sunday I did rise with the morning sun and had a big smile on my face in anticipation for what the day had in store.  I was going to be searching for my very own three little birds only these weren't likely to be found on my doorstep but rather under the dappled sunlight in the depths of an old-growth woods.  I also had the pleasure and good fortune to be accompanying a few of Ohio's most knowledgeable naturalists and fellow nature bloggers on this particular botanical foray.  Warren Uxley, Jim McCormac, author of the wildly popular Ohio Birds and Biodiversity blog and Ohio's very own walking nature encyclopedia was along for the journey as was Cheryl Harner of Weedpicker's Journal fame (scroll over the name of their blogs to activate a link to their respective sites).  In fact, Cheryl is owed all the credit for this experience with her careful study and checking of the population to best predict the right time to see them in full bloom.  My fingers were crossed her instincts were sound!

Can you see them?
Old-growth Sugar Maple/Beech woods

Our destination was an old-growth woods in north-central Ohio which shall remain nameless to better protect this rare species of orchid from the inconsiderate's shovels and hands.  You'd be surprised at the amount of ignorance portrayed by those who dig up wild orchids and think they can transplant them successfully.  Beauties and rarities such as these are best touched with our eyes only.

Spending a day strolling through an ancient woods full of towering leviathans is more than enough fun for a big tree lover like myself.  American Beech, Sugar Maple, Tuliptree, Red Oak and Basswood of remarkable proportions emerged from the deep, rich soil like solid pillars of a Greek temple, holding high the ceiling of emerald leaves.  As we entered a section dominated by Beech and Sugar Maple, Cheryl hinted that we were getting close.  A couple minutes later Jim pointed out a slightly raised and flat area of the woods and said, "That seems like the perfect spot for Triphora!".  Cheryl was quick to smile and say that's exactly where we were to look.  Didn't I tell you Jim was good?

Triphora trianthophora
Triphora trianthophora

My footsteps became light and carefully planned as my heartbeat and pulse raced faster.  My eyes meticulously scanned the leaf littered ground looking for any hint or sign of the dainty and miniscule orchid.  Suddenly my eyes fixated on a sunbeam hitting the ground, illuminating a small white object near the base of an ancient Sugar Maple.  Could it be...or was the sun just playing games with my eyes?  As I moved in for a closer look the glare lessened and a small clump of the Three-birds orchid in full, perfect bloom appeared.  My jaw dropped as I slowly sank down to my knees.  This was the first time I'd ever laid eyes on this spectacular plant and every second was worth the wait.  Scattered in a ring around the Sugar Maple was over 100 Triphora plants in varying sized groups and all in full bloom.  Cheryl could not have timed them any better!

Large clump of Three-birds orchid
Triphora trianthophora

Only growing 6-7" tall with tiny, mouse-ear sized leaves, the Three-birds orchid has single axillary flowers with 3-4 per plant on average.  The nickle-sized flowers can range from pure white like these to a soft pink color.  Each flower's throat is colored with the most unique shade of green that acts as runway lights directing incoming pollinators.  Looking further past the green patch on the lip is the purple colored pollinia.  Pollinia is orchid-speak for the packages of pollen that insects pick up and transfer to the next flower, thus pollinating it.  Most literature states these delicate beauties are primarily pollinated by bees from the Halictidae family.

Triphora trianthophora
Triphora trianthophora

Not only is the sheer beauty and mesmerizing architecture of this orchid of particular interest to me but also this plant's life history and story.  The first peculiar thing on the list is its habitat and bloom time.  Most orchids are known for their sensitive light needs, quickly disappearing in shaded conditions.  This orchid grows as a saprophyte in the rich humus of American Beech and Sugar Maple forests until about late July/early August.  Trying to find evidence of this orchid is impossible before this point.  The plant then sends up a very small and slender green stalk accompanied with three buds.  A combination of soil moisture and a drop in nighttime temperature seems to trigger this response from the plant.  It's also theorized this plant reacts to a specific amount of daylight in the days prior to flowering.  By early to mid August the first set of buds break their vow of silence and reveal their intricate beauty to the world.  All the flowers on every plant do this at the exact same time in an area, creating a sight too incredible for words especially if you find an exceptionally large patch.  This habit of mass blooming ensures the best odds of as many flowers being pollinated as possible.

The 'three birds' in flight
Triphora trianthophora

The picture above left really gives the best interpretation of why this orchid got its name.  The three flowers appear like little birds in mid flight.  Upon pollination the flowers begin to wilt and go to seed immediately.  This can sometimes only give someone a few hours to work with when trying to find and especially photograph these flowers.  In a week or so they will bud and bloom again, doing this a few times until by early September all that remains are tiny, brown stalks topped with the maturing seed capsules.  Even these do not last long after releasing their seed and the plant slips back into mystery and legend only to reappear next August.  In subsequent years of a good bloom these plants will go into a period of dormancy.  Unless the exact meteorological conditions are met this plant has no problem with remaining in its subterranean home, only sending up flowering stems when needed and necessary.

I've started to call this plant the 'social orchid' and I think you'll understand why.  Come late July, emails, texts and phone calls begin to go out with the words Triphora trianthophora being whispered back and forth.  The lucky few begin to check on their populations with daily updates in eager anticipation of when they will break bud.  Without people like Cheryl and her gracious help, getting to see these guys goes to the brink of a near impossibility.  This leads to my theory that this rare and potentially threatened plant is more common than currently known and documented.  Not too many people are scouring the darkened forest floors of Beech/Maple woods come early August, let alone on the lucky day they are most noticeable.

Three-birds is found scattered throughout the eastern half of the United States.  It's the only North American Triphora to be found outside of Florida where four other species occur.  Most populations persist in rich and deep soiled, mesic woods comprised of Beech, Sugar Maple, Tuliptree, Red Oak, White Ash and Black Walnut.  It prefers woods with a thick and loose mat of humus from which the plants grow in.  This is probably why our population was found in an old-growth forest where decaying leaf litter is in no short supply.  Remember my post from last winter about Davey Woods old-growth forest in Champaign County?  It really fits the bill when it comes to desirable habitat for this species.  Triphora is recorded from Champaign and Clark counties so it might not be too crazy to think this plant could be hiding somewhere in that exceptional woodland.

Triphora triathophora
Triphora triathophora

You would have thought these little orchids were walking the red carpet in their Oscar's finest attire by the all the shutter clicks and flashes going on under the mighty Beech and Maples.  They certainly seemed to enjoy the company and attention as they beamed their brilliant jeweled white perfection back at our camera sensors.  I know I say just about every other species of orchid is one of my favorites but this one, these three little birds, instantly flew themselves into the top category.  They say the best things in life are free.  As long as these charming little lovlies grace our forests come August, I'd say that saying holds true.

I look forward to Jim and Cheryl's potential posts about this remarkable day as I'm sure they will do their predictably amazing job on bringing our experiences, both shared and separate to your computer screens.  We saw plenty of other fascinating flora and fauna during our hike from juicy caterpillars to egg-laying butterflies.  Perhaps that will make the blogroll on the others but I just couldn't pry myself away from the tale or photographs of this perfect flower.