Hello again, everyone! I hope you enjoyed my first installment from a couple weeks ago and it left you looking forward to more upcoming posts. If you missed it, my name is Andrew Gibson and I work as a field botanist for the Division of Natural Areas & Preserves and I’ll be here throughout the summer to vicariously take you into the field with me through these blog posts. Everything you’ll see here is something I’ve encountered while out in the field in our great state of Ohio.
This time around I’d like to narrow the focus a bit and touch on the wonderful subject of Ohio’s native orchids. Most people probably get visions of steamy tropical jungles or the local florist with the mention of these often ostentatious wildflowers and while that’s certainly not incorrect, orchids are known to occur in just about every kind of habitat on the planet. This broad distribution has led to them being arguably the largest vascular plant family in the world with well over 20,000 known and described species. Here in Ohio, we have 47 different species known to naturally occur within our borders and they come in all colors, shapes, and sizes. The following are a number of summer blooming orchids that can be found and seen throughout Ohio’s state nature preserves, state parks, and state forests during the months of June and July.
Ohio’s wild orchids grabbed your narrator’s attention years ago and have yet to yield their powerful grip. There’s just something about their intricate architecture that fascinates me to no end. One of the most intoxicating of them all is the breath taking showy lady’s slipper (Cypripedium reginae). These wonders are the largest terrestrial orchid in North America and quite rare throughout most of their range; including Ohio where it is listed as a threatened species. Showy lady’s slippers are a sun and moisture loving plant that grows in neutral-alkaline habitats such as fens, wet prairies, seeps, and conifer swamps. The plant’s Latin epithet of “reginae” translates to “queen” in recognition of its majestic appearance.
If you’ll recall from my previous post, I mentioned that we have a handful of plants that are so rare they are listed as federally threatened or endangered. This next orchid is one of those select few plants and categorically my favorite of them all. Prairie fringed orchid (Platanthera leucophaea) may be incredibly scarce in today’s world due to habitat loss, degradation, and maturation but where they do still occur, they are almost impossible to ignore when in full bloom. Seeing their tall wands of creamy white flowers dance in the warm late June breeze out across their fen or wet prairie/meadow environment is a visual I won’t soon forget. Their elegantly frayed flowers emit a sweet aroma at night to attract its nocturnal hawk moth pollinators.
If the ghostly prairie fringed orchid is my favorite, then the otherworldly appearance of the dragon’s mouth orchid (Arethusa bulbosa) is a close second. Their solitary bloom is infused with an intense, electric shade of pink and complimented with a striking and uniquely patterned lip that sets it apart from any other of its orchid relatives. This species’ habitat requirement of sphagnum bogs and other wet, acidic peat land has left it excruciatingly rare in the southern part of its range; including Ohio where it is only known to occur in one lone bog in the northeastern part of the state. Laying eyes on this wildflower must have invoked visions of voracious mythical beasts to have earned the common name of dragon’s mouth orchid. When I lay eyes on it, all I can think about is how simply stunning it looks surrounded by a yellow-green sea of sphagnum moss.
This next orchid is another one of my favorites and potentially one of the oddest orchids to call Ohio home. The round-leaved orchid’s (Platanthera orbiculata) blooming stalk seems to glow in the dim, darkened understory of its hemlock and white pine forest haunts come mid-June. Its large, round leaves have a thick, greasy feel to them and use their extended surface area to capture every ray of finite sunlight they can. It takes a huge amount of energy to send up a flowering stalk and growing in such a low-light environment means this orchid may only flower once every few years as it saves up its reserves. Look for this species in dark, undisturbed conifer and mixed oak forests throughout eastern and northeastern Ohio.
Some wildflowers have a toll one must pay to gain access to their beauty and when it comes to the regal small purple fringed orchid (Platanthera psycodes), that price is paid in blood. This potentially-threatened species inhabits swamps, wet thickets, and shrubby bog borders where the mosquito reigns supreme. That being said, seeing a small purple fringed orchid in the dappled sunlight of a swamp forest is worth all the potential trouble and will even make you forget about those pesky blood-suckers for a moment. Each individual inflorescence is reminiscent of a purple face with a fringed lip for a beard and pair of pollen-bearing pollinia for eyes.
The last species I want to share is what I like to call the bubblegum orchid. The grass pink orchid (Calopogon tuberosus) not only looks similar in color and form to a wad of chewing gum but it tastes like it too! All kidding aside, this orchid is too uncommon and unusual to want to eat and appetizing to the eyes only. Almost all orchids have resupinate flowers, meaning they are turned 180 degrees upside down when flowering. Every orchid you’ve seen thus far, as weird as it may seem is upside down with its lip on the bottom of the flower. The grass pink is non-resupinate and has its lip rightly situated at the top of the flower. Looking closely at the photo, you can see the lip has a beard-like protrusion of yellow false stamens used to attract pollinators like bumblebees, which upon landing are heavy enough to cause the lip to bend on a hinge and carry the bumblebee down to a contact point with the pollen-carrying structure called a column. With any luck the pollinia will stick to the bumblebee’s back and after a moment of temporary memory loss, the bumblebee will visit a different flower and have the same thing happen again. Only this time it deposits the pollinia and voilà, pollination.
As mentioned before, the wild orchids are my greatest passion and obsession in the plant world. And while I don’t expect everyone to appreciate them as much as myself, I do hope you enjoyed this look in on a handful of our most interesting and rare summer blooming species. One of my biggest botanical bucket list items is to see and photograph all 47 of our state’s indigenous orchids and I’m happy and proud to say at this point I have 46 of them with a check next to their name. Only the hooded ladies’-tresses (Spiranthes romanzoffiana) have evaded me so far but hopefully not for long. I told you all I was crazy! Thanks for tuning in to this installment and look for the next piece soon. Happy botanizing!