Saturday, February 9, 2013

Small Purple Fringed Orchid

There are few things better than slipping on your knee-high rubber boots and getting in deep with the mosquitoes all under the hot June sun for this nature lover.  Perhaps many of you read that with the taste of sarcasm but I assure you there is none!  I know Swamp forests aren't very high on most people's list of places to visit during the summer months but most people aren't in pursuit for one of our state's most stunning wildflowers.

Boardwalk through the swamp forest at Cedar Bog

This particular hardwood swamp forest in west-central Ohio is one of the finest in the state and home to a number of curiosities.  The forest canopy is dominated by black ash (Fraxinus nigra) and red maple (Acer rubrum) with pumpkin ash (F. profunda), green ash (F. pennsylvanica), swamp white oak (Quercus bicolor), American elm (Ulmus americana), and tuliptree (Liriodendron tulipifera) mixed in, while the shrub layer consists largely of spicebush (Lindera benzoin) and winterberry (Ilex verticillata).  The ever-advancing onslaught of emerald ash borer puts woods comprised of this much ash in great jeopardy.  My hopes and wishes are probably in vain but with any luck and human-intervention perhaps this patch will be spared.

Black ash and red maple swamp forest

Despite the air oozing with humidity and the price paid in blood, swamp forests are worth the troubles for those willing to explore their depths during even the most unfavorable of times.  The shaded and moist conditions of the forest provide excellent growing conditions for many obligate wetland plants that carpet the mucky ground in a thick, brilliant emerald carpet.  Along the boardwalk at Cedar Bog you're sure to see many of these swamp forest associate species such as: Michigan lily (Lilium michiganense), Virginia iris (Iris virginica), fringed loosestrife (Lysmachia ciliata), jewelweed (Impatiens pallida), purple-stemmed angelica (Angelica atropurpurea), swamp thistle (Circium muticum), crested wood fern (Dryopteris cristata), sensitive fern (Onoclea sensibilis), fowl mannagrass (Glyceria striata), and Carex bromoides.

Early spring in the swamp forest

In early spring the thawed mucky soil comes alive with a sea of charming golden flowers from the marsh marigolds (Caltha palustris) that seem to never end as you gaze out across the swamp.  Mixed in with the marsh marigolds during this time are hundreds of skunk cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus) plants unfurling their leaves for the spring.  Skunk cabbage in its own right is a fascinating and unique plant that you can read up on from an earlier post HERE.

Come June the marsh marigolds and skunk cabbage blooms are long gone, replaced by maturing seed pods that will ensure this swamp isn't lost of their beauty any time soon.  But as those plants yearly life cycle's are winding to a close another is just getting ready to really get going and reveal its rare beauty to the few who seek it.

Small Purple Fringed Orchid - Platanthera psycodes

In a particular spot within Cedar Bog's highly diverse swamp forest lives one of the summer's most splendid of floral treats: the small purple fringed orchid (Platanthera psycodes).  About two dozen plants grace the dappled shade under the ash and maple, their wands of lacy inflorescences painted the most majestic of purple. In other part's of its range it's not uncommon to see more pink/rose colored specimens.

Small Purple Fringed Orchid - Platanthera psycodes

Unfortunately, like many of its orchid kin, this species is rather scarce in Ohio and is currently listed on our state's rare species list as potentially-threatened.  Its habitat of pristine, undisturbed swamp forest becoming such an uncommon occurrence is largely to blame.  Just about all of Ohio's wetlands, no matter the type were drained and converted to agriculture or development early on, leaving very little left intact today.  It's not all doom and gloom though!  Last February I sat in on the rare plant meeting that discusses and evaluates the status of Ohio's rare flora and it was decided after additional discoveries of this plant that it should be downgraded from threatened to potentially-threatened. It's certainly not out of the woods by any stretch but I'll take even the smallest of good news when I can.

Small Purple Fringed Orchid - Platanthera psycodes

There is little doubt this orchid is one of the more stunning examples mother nature has to offer.  I've always thought of the Platanthera genus of orchids as the one's who love to dance.  Each individual inflorescence appears like a petite angel caught in the middle of an elegant performance.  While beggars can't be choosers, I wish to someday make it up to areas in Michigan and Wisconsin where this orchids fills roadside ditches and wet meadows with their splendor by the hundreds!

Small Purple Fringed Orchid - Platanthera psycodes

You would think a plant so vivid and tastefully colored would be an easy eye-catcher in the field but that's rarely always the case.  Even when you know where to look these orchids have an uncanny ability to hide in plain sight among the shadows and vegetation.  Upon coming across this population in Cedar Bog to do a population assessment my eyes only caught a few flowering stems at first but after adjusting my sight and focus I found plenty more in varying sizes and stages of blooming.

Small Purple Fringed Orchid - Platanthera psycodes

An even closer look makes the flowers materialize into little purple faces accompanied by frilly beards and two unblinking eyes.  Of course these aren't 'eyes' at all but rather little packages of pollen called pollinia in orchid-speak.  The primary pollinators of many, if not most Platanthera orchids are diurnal and nocturnal members of the insect order Lepidoptera, or butterflies and moths.  When a moth probes the flower's long nectar-filled spur for a sugary treat it accidentally comes into contact with the pollinia.  With any luck the package of pollen attaches itself to the passing pollinator and is off to the next flower/plant for depositing and pollination!

Small Purple Fringed Orchid - Platanthera psycodes

The 'small' aspect of this flower's name comes by the way of another similarly purple-flowered species of Platanthera known as the, you guessed it...large purple fringed orchid (P. grandiflora).  Living in Ohio you'd be the luckiest botanist in recent memory to have the need to differentiate the two as only the small species is still extant within our borders.  The larger taxon was only seen a handful of times in the extreme northeast corner and not for nearly 100 years.  I plan to eventually do a post on my trip to the cranberry glades area of West Virginia this past summer to see and photograph the large purple fringed orchid.  Until then those interested in a photograph of it for comparative reasons can click here for an image on my Flickr page.

Aerial view of the Small Purple Fringed Orchid 

I'll wind down with this image taken from above of a purple fringed orchid.  The alignment and symmetry is incredibly and a true work of nature's art if you ask me.  I encourage more people to feel  adventurous and brave the mosquitoes and humidity by sloshing around their nearest swamp or wet woods.  If your timing is right and with a little luck on your side you never know what you may stumble across!  Places like this are rarely explored that time of year and leave plenty to the imagination on what lies inside...

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