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?
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|
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.
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|
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.
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.