Sunday, June 22, 2014

A Quirky Orchid Under Old-Growth Pine and Hemlock

If you're a first time reader and/or visitor to this page, I thank you for dropping in and hope you enjoy your stay. For everyone else, whether it be my long-time readers or recent followers you should probably know by now of my obsession with our wild orchids.  It's a passion that only increases as the weeks and months go by after all.  I hope to feature or share each and every one of Ohio's 47 indigenous taxa on here at least once as time goes on.  The one that happens to be featured in this post also happens to be one of my favorites.  I know, every other orchid species is "one of my favorites" but this one is definitely on the top ten list.

Dan deep in thought under the old-growth white pines and hemlocks

The hike to the site for our upcoming quirky orchid is one of my favorites in Ohio, as it takes you into one of the rarest habitats our state has left to offer.  Along a north facing bluff overlooking the deep sandstone gorge of the Clear Fork of the Mohican is a very small but very significant old-growth white pine and hemlock forest full of ancient and towering specimens.  Above my good friend and botanical companion for the day, Daniel Boone pauses under a particularly profound white pine to ponder the beauty of the forest.

Soaring white pine
Stout hemlocks

Stout and straight with hardly a taper is the rule in this grove and that makes it truly a sight to behold.  Even on the clearest and sunniest of days the forest floor remains cool and dark with its lofty canopy keeping the sun at bay overhead.  The melodic notes of the veery, hermit thrush, and black-throated green warbler are never far from your ear during this time of year and add another layer to your sensory overload.

Round-leaved orchid under the pines and hemlocks

Due to the aforementioned low-light conditions, the forest floor is sparsely vegetated with a large ratio of the ground merely a bed of fallen pine needles and oak leaves among a scattering of intermediate wood fern (Dryopteris intermedia).  Hardly anything seems able to live, let alone thrive in such conditions but the round-leaved orchid (Platanthera orbiculata) has managed to find a way. 

Round-leaved Orchid (Platanthera orbiculata)

Its large, round basal leaves are hard to miss among the detritus when purely vegetative but there's really no overlooking the plant when in full glorious flower.  It's ghostly cream-green glow beckons any willing soul toward its wand of bizarre looking flowers arranged in perfect fashion along a scape.

Close up of the raceme of round-leaved orchid

In my opinion, no other Ohio orchid's individual flower structure is more out-of-this-world than the round-leaved orchid's.  In something out of a drug-induced vision of the late Hunter S. Thompson, the flowers look like scurrying demonic, bat-headed beings on four legs with a tail, all ascending back up into their alien mothership.  Anyone care to share what they see in the flowers?

Such weird looking flowers
Aerial view of the round-leaved orchid

Orchids have the reputation for being some of the more fickle and finicky wildflowers out there and that stereotype definitely holds true with this species, at least in your narrator's experience.  I've visited this site annually for the past four years and it's certainly had its boom and bust years.  In 2011 the population had a mass bloom with dozens of plants bearing flowering stalks of varying size and vigor.  Subsequent visits in 2012 and 2013 produced essentially no flowering individuals with the most recent trip in 2014 bearing a good amount in flower but not approaching that of 2011.  

A spectacular specimen of the round-leaved orchid

Living in such a low-light environment, it's no surprise this species would come to evolve and bear such over-sized leaves and have a staggered bloom cycle from year to year.  Only a tiny fraction of the total available sunlight beaming down at the canopy penetrates through and reaches this particularly bleak forest floor, so any plants below are going to need all the help they can to keep their glucose factories humming along.  Sending up a flower stalk is an enormous allocation of energy for each individual plant so it makes perfect sense that a round-leaved orchid would take several years off between reproduction events to accumulate and replenish its energy stores before repeating the process.  

Round-leaved orchid portrait

The round-leaved orchid is predominately a species of the coniferous hardwood and mixed forests of the Great Lakes region, the Northeast, and all across northern Canada.  It does occur at higher elevations in the Appalachians as far south as Tennessee and North Carolina as well as in limited parts of the northern Rockies.  Here in Ohio, it occurs throughout the northeastern quarter of the state in a variety of mesic-dry conifer and mixed forests.  At Clear Fork Gorge it seems to prefer the oldest areas of the white pine/hemlock/chestnut oak forest accompanied by a thick duff of conifer needles where little else occurs.

Round-leaved orchid from 2011.
Round-leaved orchid from 2011.

As impossible as it is to see every orchid, every year going forward, I do my best to revisit each species because I'm just that nuts I guess?  Probably, but also because few things are more fun and get me more excited than the prospect of seeing an old friend again and these orchids were long overdue for a sit down.

Tanner getting acquainted with the round-leaved orchids

Along with Dan on this foray was my friend and exceptional field botanist in his own right, Tanner Morris who has a soft spot for our wild orchids as well.  He had never had the chance to see and photograph this species before so I was extra pleased this population finally came back to life this season.  Not to speak for Tanner himself but I think it's safe to assume he couldn't have enjoyed the experience more.  Hopefully there will be some around next year to see as barely even 12 hours removed, I'm already anticipating the next time.


  1. Andrew you are definitely the Orchid Man of Ohio. I am waiting for you to find small whorled pogonia in Ohio. Only one person has seen it to my knowledged the botanist Fred Case. The beautiful flowers of Platanthera orbiculata look like angles to me, orbiculata a boreal forest orchid and for you to see it in Ohio is absolutely awesome. The only other state south of Michigan I have seen this plant at is West Virginia at cranberry glades. I guess in a couple weeks you be showing Amerorchis rotundifolia growing in Ohio I hope. God I wish I was with you guys. Very appreciated. Thank you.

    1. Thanks, Karl. No one would love to find and see the small whorled pogonia in Ohio more than me. Fred Case found the first one in Shawnee state forest around 1985 and then Paul Knoop found them in the Hocking Hills a few years later in the late 80's. That Hocking Hills locality is the only spot still known and monitored although the plant hasn't even appeared above ground since 2008, I believe.

  2. Wonderful photos, Andrew. It is good to know of this year's display. Mohican is a an oasis of green in mid-Ohio.

    1. Thanks, Cheryl! I love your area of the state and wish I had more time and opportunity to explore.

  3. This is one of your best blog entries yet, I think -- mainly because I haven't photographed this species in many years. I understand it can be found on the NC-TN border, but I've yet to find it up there. I know you guys were in "orchid heaven" at least for a day... Keep up the good work!

    Jim Fowler, Greenville, SC

    1. Thanks a lot, Jim! You're too kind. You know any year you want to see them and they are up and blooming, you're more than welcome to visit :)

  4. That is one lovely orchid! Count on you to find it, too. When I checked the NY floral atlas, P. orbiculata is documented to grow nearly everywhere in NY, but I have never seen it. I'll bet if you went looking with me, we would find it. Wonderful photos!

    1. Thanks, dearest Jackie. I'm surprised you haven't seen it before with it being some commonly collected throughout the state. Perhaps it's hiding somewhere under some pines and hemlocks near you :) If anyone is up for finding it, I know you and your associated botanists are them. Has Evelyn ever seen this? It seems like if anyone would know where some is, it would be here.

    2. Yup, you were right about Evelyn knowing this orchid. Or rather, one almost identical, Platanthera macrophylla, which is just like P. orbiculata only bigger. She, Bob Duncan and I went to find some on 7/5, but they were still in bud. We were able to measure the spurs, however, and their length proved that what we had found was P. macrophylla. We will return next week to try to see it in bloom.

  5. I've often wondered if others had noticed or had an explanation for the on again-off again bloom cycle of this terrific Orchid. On the farm where I live in southern West Virginia, several plants appeared and bloomed in 2010 and have not bloomed since. I see the leaves quite often and check them each year, but nothing. I have ran across them blooming in other areas of the state during this off time where I live. I enjoy you blog very much. Have a great summer,

  6. Is it possible to purchase a rosebud orchid from you-also the frinched orchid.You are the only site I have been able to find the rosebud in several hours of searching.