|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 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.
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.