Thursday, October 25, 2012

Looking Back on an Orchid-filled Year

Your blogger sits at his desk on a unseasonably warm fall afternoon, watching the last of the golden yellow black maple leaves swirl in the breeze out the opened window.  Each fall the tree consistently puts on a spectacular show just outside my door and this year has been no different.  Those few days of prime color and full branches can't be beat but is a sure sign the growing season has come to yet another inevitable close and leaves me with the memories and lingering excitement of the season's experiences.

Going through and organizing all my notes and checklists from the year is the final nail in the coffin for the growing season.  As I sort and compile the final number of vascular plant species I encountered on my botanical forays and romps, all the details are quickly recalled and allow me to reminisce on each outing into my beloved natural world.  Last year (2011) saw over 1,300 species grace my notes with this year falling a bit short of that number with just under 1,200.  That includes exploring all four corners of Ohio, parts of Indiana, Kentucky, Michigan, New York, and West Virginia along with quite a few miles on the Subaru.  The most anticipated and important final tally is of course the members from the Orchidaceae  family.  Likewise with my overall count, this year fell a bit short from the previous season (52) but 47 is still a mighty fine quota if you ask me!

I'd like to share some of my favorite orchid finds and experiences of the year and focus mostly on species that I have not shown on this blog before.  Some are old friends I've seen consecutive years now and never disappoint while others were personal firsts and left me with a lighter life list to chase in the future.  I've said it before but I'll say it again: there is almost nothing better than waiting all that time, getting over all the near misses, and finally making that elusive orchid's acquaintance.  My dream is to make every attempt at finding and photographing every indigenous species of orchid to North America before my time runs out.  I don't expect to ever achieve that goal but I'm more than willing to die trying!

Pink Lady's Slipper  ~  Cypripedium acaule

The season started out fast due to this past spring's hot start.  I can remember temperatures in the low 80's while photographing snow trillium (Trillium nivale) in early March.  Not exactly something one would normally expect but with the way the climate is changing, I fear it's a reality we'll be forced to get used to.  By mid-April the year's first orchids were up and blooming with the pink lady's slippers (Cypripedium acaule) leading the charge.  Despite having seen them more times than just about any orchid I'm still mesmerized by their unique structure and delicate beauty.

Spring Coralroot  ~  Corallorhiza wisteriana

Late April found me hiking the rolling hills of southwestern Ohio for the spring coralroot (Corallorhiza wisteriana) on its mesic lower slopes of deciduous forest.  Certainly much smaller and less noticeable than the pink lady's slipper but still has a charm all its own with its magenta speckled lower lip.

Small White Lady's Slipper  ~  Cypripedium candidum

Early May bestows the lucky few with one of the state's greatest moments and treasures in the small white lady's slippers (Cypripedium candidum).  This miniscule orchid has labellums (pouches) the size of a sparrow's egg and can only be found in an extremely limited number of counties in the state.  These particular plants were photographed in a hanging dolomite-limestone prairie in Adams county.

Shining Ladies'-tresses  ~  Spiranthes lucida

Not long after the small white lady's slippers have come and gone I know it's time to pay a visit to a mucky sedge meadow in nearby Pike county to see the earliest of Ohio's ladies'-tresses orchid to open up its flowers.  Scattered around the muddy seep by the dozens are the unmistakable white and yellow blooms of the shining ladies'-tresses (Spiranthes lucida).  While the Spiranthes  genus can cause some novice wildflower enthusiasts fits, this species is the easiest of all to identify by its spring bloom date and striking yellow throat.

Long-bracted Orchid  ~  Coeloglossum viride

A particular weekend in late May saw your blogger mark off two long-awaited life species in one long, road-weary day.  First up was one that won't win any beauty contests or make the normal person drive three hours to see but I've never claimed to be 'normal', especially when it comes to orchids.  The long-bracted orchid (Coeloglossum viride) is an endangered species in Ohio and one I had never been able to track down or find.  So when a friend suggested a site in northeastern Indiana, I jumped at the chance and was not disappointed in my search.  Even under close inspection its hard to see if the flowers are even open and believe it or not the photograph above shows a plant in full bloom.  The thin yellowish-green lip hanging below a darker green hood of sepals must have given someone the impression of a frog as this plant also goes by the common name of frog orchid.

Dragon's-mouth Orchid  ~  Arethusa bulbosa

Easily the most exciting and memorable of all the new orchid finds this year happened later in the day after coming across the long-bracted orchid above.  Growing in a floating sphagnum bog in southeastern Michigan was the subject of many a day dream and wish I had wanted to see for years on end with no luck.  The dragon's-mouth orchid (Arethusa bulbosa) is in my opinion one of the most stunning and perfectly sculpted wildflowers on earth.  Rising from a small bulb situated in the cold, water-saturated sphagnum below is a solitary bloom with its mythical jaws wide open and vivid pink crown situated above.  Averting one's eyes from its royal and piercing appearance is nigh on impossible, as is making the decision to depart and leave its timeless beauty behind.

Northern Tubercled Orchid  ~  Platanthera flava var. herbiola

Early June found myself ankle deep in mud and surrounded by an impenetrable cloud of mosquitos in the depths of a swamp forest in north-central Ohio.  What I paid for in blood and itchy welts was well worth the price as I looked out across a dense sea of northern tubercled orchid (Platanthera flava var. herbiola).  This small, green orchid gets its name from the small bump or tubercle at the back of the lower lip that is believed to direct its pollinators to one of the two pollinia above.

Lesser Purple Fringed Orchid  ~  Platanthera psycodes

If spring is the time of the Cypripedium  orchids then the summer months are the reign of the Platantheras.  Commonly called the 'fringed' or 'rein' orchids, these large or small wands of many individual flowers rank among the most charming and exquisite of our native wildflowers.  In the later half of June and early July, a few of Ohio's swamp forests are home to the lesser purple fringed orchid (Platanthera psycodes), a potentially-threatened species in our state.  Its dainty, purple inflorescences look like dancing angels under the darkened, murky forest canopy.

E. Prairie Fringed Orchid  ~  Platanthera leucophaea

There's no way I could pass over the chance to see my favorite of our orchids each June; especially when they are so close to my childhood home back in west-central Ohio.  The federally threatened eastern prairie fringed orchid (Platanthera leucophaea) was once more common in the wet meadows, prairies, and shorelines of Ohio and the surrounding great lake states but has been nearly eradicated by man's plow and development.  It really is hard to pick a favorite out of so many good and close friends but I am drawn to this species like none other and really have no specific reason why.  Seeing it in person should be on any botanist or naturalist's bucket list!

Greater Purple Fringed Orchid  ~  Platanthera grandiflora

Sometimes seeing a particular orchid requires one to leave Ohio behind and explore areas outside her borders to find what you're looking for.  One of those species is the greater purple fringed orchid (Platanthera grandiflora), an extirpated species in our state that hasn't graced our soils in nearly a century.  A drive down to the cranberry glades botanical area of West Virginia was just the trick to see this stunner this past late June and proved to be quite the botanical significant day.  I plan to take you along for the trip in its own blog post in the near future.

White Fringed Orchid  ~  Platanthera blephariglottis

July saw me pay a visit to good friend and brilliant naturalist/blogger Jackie in upstate New York.  There she would show me one of my other long-awaited orchid life species: the white fringed orchid (Platanthera blephariglottis).  The huge expanse of grounded black spruce and tamarack sphagnum bog produced many gorgeous plants that I couldn't get enough of.  For a detailed look at this experience you can check out this blog post right here.

Purple Fringeless Orchid  ~  Platanthera peramoena

Upon my return to Ohio from an unforgettable time in the southern Adirondacks, I ventured out not too far from my residence in southeastern Ohio to see another one of nature's floral perfections.  Looking strikingly familiar to the aforementioned greater purple fringed orchid, this is the purple fringeless orchid (Platanthera peramoena).  Take a glance at the lower lip of each individual inflorescence and you'll see the margins are largely entire and do not exhibit any 'fringing', hence its common name.

Cranefly Orchid  ~  Tipularia discolor

Arguably one of southern Ohio's most common species of orchid is also one of the hardest to see in flower.  The cranefly orchid (Tipularia discolor) gets its name from the flower's appearance to dancing craneflies; a large, short-lived type of insect from the Tipulidae  family.  Their greenish-purple racemes of flowers bloom in late summer in the darkened under stories of deciduous forests making for a frustrating experience.  It's best to find and mark these plants in the winter when their over-wintering leaves are visible and frequently encountered, then check back on them in mid-late July to catch them blooming.  The uniform, artificial black background really helps to make this orchid stand out when photographing it.

Grass-leaved Ladies'-tresses  ~  Spiranthes vernalis

You know the orchid season is approaching wrap up time when the Spiranthes  genus starts to really kick into gear.  One of the earliest to show its face is the grass-leaved ladies'-tresses (S. vernalis), a locally frequent species in the southeastern quarter of the state.  Another common name for this orchid is the spring ladies'-tresses due to its ability to flower as early as April in the southern parts of its range.  Since it doesn't bloom until August here in Ohio I see no reason to go by that name here.

Small Ladies'-tresses  ~  Spiranthes tuberosa

One particular species of late-summer flowering orchid isn't all that uncommon but its tiny stature makes it seem impossible to find.  The adequately named small ladies'-tresses (Spiranthes tuberosa) has pure white, crystalized flowers so small you could fit four or five on your pinkie nail alone!  I wish I had my finger in the photo above to show just how small these plants are!

Autumn Coralroot  ~  Corallorhiza odontorhiza

All good times must come to an end and I know the end is nigh when I see the autumn or late coralroot (Corallorhiza odontorhiza) blooming come September and into October.  While some say you save the best for last, I could hardly say that holds true for Ohio's orchids when your last species to bloom are these guys.

2012 was an incredible season for this passionately obsessed botanist and left me only wanting more and extremely hopeful and excited for 2013.  The only thing that gets me through the dark, cold winter months is the promise I get to do this all over again next year.  I'll be here to bring it all to you and hope you follow along as I'm sure there will be more than enough to share!


  1. Thanks for taking us along on your journey!

  2. How very beautiful and delicate. Just wonderful post of images and information. Fabulous!

  3. Great post, Andrew! I was SO happy to join you on your orchid quest here in northern NY! You sure have an eye for seeing them, even the most elusive and nearly invisible -- like that tiny Goodyera repens I never would have found on my own. Let's do it again next spring.

  4. Thanks for the comments! Much appreciated and glad you enjoyed the post.

    Jackie, I couldn't agree more and cannot wait!

  5. I am truly amused that you did a post so similar to my last post for the year. What a laugh! Hoe you are able to make it out to the PNW some time. I would enjoy immensely the opportunity to take you around and show you some of our treasures.