Exploring for Orchids in Their Native Haunts
THERE IS NO QUESTION THAT THE family Orchidaceae has achieved its greatest diversity and boldest expression in the tropical and subtropical regions of the world. Nevertheless, it is written that species of the orchid family can be found in all 50 of the United States, which is somewhat astounding when you consider the exceedingly diverse range of climates and habitats found across the North American expanse.
Similarly to their tropical cousins, our native orchids tend to thrive in marginal habitats that are frequently removed from centers of population. Except for the extreme southeastern part of the country, most native orchids are terrestrial. As with all wild species, some types are rather widespread, while others thrive in comparatively limited areas.
Indeed, some of our native orchids are showy. Among the most attractive are various species of the genus Cypripedium, popularly called lady’s-slipper orchids after the shape of the lip of the flower. The yellow lady’s slipper, Cypripedium parviflorum, is a plant of transcontinental range, occurring across North America from Northern Alaska to Arizona and the East Coast.
Another beautiful little orchid with a remarkably wide distribution is the diminutive fairy slipper, Calypso bulbosa. The plant ranges across North America and Eurasia. There is even a variety of this orchid in Japan. Some consider the fairy slipper to be the most beautiful of the northern terrestrial orchids and you will never forget the first time you see one flowering in the wild.
As do orchids from the tropics, a number of northern species produce flowers that are small or less than showy. While these may not stop traffic on a hike, many have charm and interest for those willing to take the time to study them with a hand lens.
Although numbers vary among experts, Paul Martin Brown, author of The Wild Orchids of North American, North of Mexico, says that 228 species plus 22 additional subspecies and varieties inhabit North America north of Mexico (15 of these are naturalized). Not surprisingly, more than half of the native orchid species are found in the southeastern states. Some authors list considerably more than 100 species for Florida alone. Brown, who also wrote Wild Orchids of Florida, reports 119 species for Florida, including eight naturalized species. Perhaps 50 species or more occur in midwestern and northeastern states. Our northern orchids tend to occupy either of two general habitats: open bogs and meadows or more protected woodland areas.
Most hobbyists who grow tropical orchids, particularly residents of colder climates, would probably be surprised at the number of orchid species that grow not so far from their own back yards. The late Philip Keenan’s Orchids: A Complete Guide to Maine’s Orchids, a small booklet on native orchids of Maine, lists 43 native species and varieties. A similar book on Colorado’s orchids, Native Orchids of Colorado, by John C. Long, includes about two dozen.
Certainly in the regions of the West and Southwest, orchids seldom occur beyond reliable sources of moisture, such as are offered by canyons, valleys and ravines or seasonally moist watercourses and springs. The Western native orchid Epipactis gigantea, variously called giant helleborine, stream orchid or chatterbox, grows in such areas.
It has seemed to me that native orchids often receive less attention than is given to many other types of wildflowers. Perhaps that is because many are somewhat less showy and less frequently encountered than your average wildflower. However, one state has designated an orchid as its state flower.
THE STATE FLOWER ORCHID State flowers of the United States represent a rather broad botanical range, from the magnolia (Louisiana and Mississippi) to the black-eyed susan (Maryland). The practice of legislating a state blossom was started by Oklahoma in the first months of 1893, when its territorial government designated the mistletoe as its floral emblem even before statehood had been granted. Only one state in the union, however, has an orchid as its state flower. Contrary to what you might suppose, it is neither Florida nor Hawaii (which chose the orange blossom and hibiscus, respectively).
The honor of having an orchid as the state flower belongs to one of our northern states, Minnesota. In 1893, within a month of the Oklahoma Act, the Minnesota legislature adopted a pink lady’s slipper as the state emblem. A bill was passed on an 1892 recom-mendation by the Ladies Auxiliary of Minnesota’s Fair Commission.
For nearly 10 years, there was debate in Minnesota as to exactly which one of several species of slipper orchids that grow in that state was the correct emblem. In 1902, the legislature clarified the law by designating the showy lady’s slipper, Cypripedium reginae, as the official symbol.
Like many orchids, Cyp. reginae grows away from civilization, frequently occurring in bogs and swampy areas. The species occurs across much of eastern North America. It’s a robust plant that grows in clumps and reaches heights of 2½ feet (75 cm). One to a few 3-inch (7.5-cm) flowers are produced at the tops of the plants in early summer.
The Minnesota legislature took special measures to protect its state flower when they passed laws in 1925 stating “no person within the state of Minnesota shall knowingly buy or sell the state flower,” and prohibited taking this orchid from public lands.
NATIVE-ORCHID GROUPS It is unlikely that a large percentage of orchid hobbyists take much time to appreciate or celebrate their local orchid flora, as many see little connection between their tropical plants and their temperate woodland cousins. Yet for others an orchid is an orchid, and they find it easy to transfer their orchid interest to the great outdoors. Denise Wilson, of Golden, Colorado, is one of these.
Wilson, who has been growing orchids for more than a decade, is an active member of both the Denver and Boulder orchid societies. A few years ago she became involved in a native orchid survey project that was organized by Partners for Colorado Native Plants (PCNP).
PCNP is a volunteer organization under the management of two scientific nonprofit organizations located in the Denver metropolitan area: Denver Botanic Gardens and The Butterfly Pavilion. The survey group is entering its third field season this spring and has received a grant for its work in updating the population census of six orchids native to Colorado. These include yellow lady’s slipper (Cypri-pedium parviflorum var. pubescens), clustered lady’s slipper (Cypripedium fasciculatum), northern twayblade (Listera borealis), broad-leaved tway-blade (Listera convallarioides), Ute ladies’ tresses (Spiranthes diluvialis) and stream orchid (Epipactis gigantea).
The volunteers go exploring for native orchids with the help of the Colorado Natural Heritage Program’s historical records of sightings of these orchids. Some of the records are years old. Wilson tells of one report indicating a small group of yellow lady’s slippers that were last seen in 1978.
“After four hours of hiking up the mountainside and searching, we found the plants, all three of them, and all were in blooming good health.” Then she adds, “No sooner had we found them than we were driven off the mountain by a hailstorm, but we look forward to returning in 2006 to find out if there are more plants.”
The orchid survey volunteers must take their tasks seriously. Each signs a confidentiality statement requiring that they take no plant material from the sites and that they will not tell anyone of the location of the plants. They attend a series of training sessions to learn a bit about orchid morphology and identi-fication, how to complete the reports following a field trip and how to use a GPS unit to help locate the plants.
The Colorado group currently includes 40 volunteers who visit 45 sites. Particular volunteers return to the same site each year and hope to gather population data for at least seven to 10 years so that population trends can be analyzed. The group is modeled after the successful Chicago Botanic Gardens’ and Chicago Wilderness’s Plants of Concern Program.
Plant conservation is important in the temperate climates as well as in the tropics. Familiarity with local orchids is a logical goal for any orchid society or serious hobbyist. While perhaps too few of us have taken the time to discover and appreciate the wild orchids in our regions, all of us can resolve to get out this season and make an effort to at least meet the natives.