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!


  1. Tried posting a reply a few days back but I musta fatfingered my keyboard..wanted to say..wow..awesome pics from what looks like an awesome place. You sure do have the spots my freind. Whats funny also is that you tolerate/enjoy the powerline cuts and I the railway corridors for the same reasons.Good job man.and ps..I'm now doing 7.1 megapixel ID's..too cool..cannot believe what I've been missing.peace.

  2. Couldn't agree more about the railways too. They have protected native prairie remnants for decades that would have disappeared if not for the railroads being put through. Odd how something typically destructive and man-made can accidentally protect the very environment it usually harms. Nowadays many of the old railroads are now bike paths but still do their job valiantly.