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An Orchid for M'Lady

Four weeks ago the subject was the Pink Moccasin Flower (Cypripedium acaule).

This is the largest orchid growing in our area. There are several other much

smaller species that you might come across on Nature Preserve lands. At first

glance they may not be easily recognizable as orchids. These deserve a closer

look. To completely enjoy these miniature orchids to the fullest, a small hand lens

will help greatly. Then their true beauty becomes apparent and you discover that

they have as much beauty and complexity as the larger corsage flowers.

Cranefly Orchid winter leaves

The first orchid that I would like to call attention to is the Cranefly Orchid, Tipularia discolor. During the fall, winter, and early spring months the leaves are frequently

observed. They are usually an olive green above, somewhat seer suckered or

wrinkled, growing either in small groups or at times larger colonies in the shade of

hardwood forests. The underside of the leaf is a distinct deep purple and is what I

look for as a field mark. They grow in the company of partridge-berry, mosses,

and club mosses, Lycopodium. I will write more about club mosses in a future

post. There are some pictures of these leaves growing in association with

partridgeberry in a previous post. When you discover the leaves in winter

enduring the freezing temperatures, drifting snow, and ice make a mental note of

the location. By late spring these leaves will have completely died back. Then

during the weeks following July 4th in our climate zone, the spike shoots up

magically and blooms without the beauty and interest of their colorful leaves, in

the manner of Lycoris lilies.

Cranefly Orchid colony

The naked stem is sometimes 15 inches tall and graced with little orchids that are described as green tinted with purple.

Cranefly Orchid flower spike

The lip petal, the central lower petal, extends backward into a long spur.

Cranefly Orchid detail

Cranefly resting

Apparently to some botanists they must have reminded them of craneflies, hence the name.

I was a grown man before I realized that those wispy purplish blooms that I was

seeing in July, belonged to the same set of leaves that I knew and loved from the

winter season. Brown and Brown in "Herbaceous Plants of Maryland" list them as infrequent on the eastern shore but we are blessed with an abundance of them along Johnson’s and the Tantrough Branches of the Nature Preserve. Look for them in all of the forested areas of the Preserve.

The second small orchid found growing in small groups among the fallen leaves of hardwoods, such as oak, is the Downy Rattlesnake Plantain orchid, Goodyera pubescens.

Rattlesnake Plantain Orchid colony

In this case Brown and Brown indicate that it is common throughout our region. In my experience locally, I find it much less common than the previous species and have seen it only at three or four locations in the Blair’s Pond Woods and at one location along Johnson’s Branch. The small plants are often partially hidden under fallen leaves and are difficult to locate.

Rattlesnake Plantain leaf rosette

The plant would be among my top picks for the most attractive leaves of all the small orchids. In my youth, and still to this day, we knew the location of each colony on the Tantrough farm and visited them often to check how they were faring.

Once again the bloom spike appears magically after July 4th, however in this instance the lovely leaves are present simultaneously, a truly beautiful sight. In my paranoia I sometimes cage them to protect them against browsing deer.

Rattlesnake Plaintain flower detail

The small greenish white flowers when viewed with your hand lens remind me of little Cymbidiums. The upper petals are fused to form a little hood above the cupped, pouch shaped lower lip petal. Sometimes it is easier to spot this orchid by searching for the flower spike during the weeks after July 4th or the persistent seed head since the leaves may be difficult to spot.

The next small orchid you might locate is the Green Wood Orchid, Planathera clavellata . (Your field guide may list this orchid under the older name Habenaria clavellata).

Green Wood Orchid

It grows at the edges of wet, peaty bogs and wooded swamps. The single leaf is strap-like. The bloom spike is topped with a few small greenish-white flowers.

Green Wood Orchid flower detail

It grows along the edges of the Jeanette Isaacs swamp, along Abbott’s Pond, Johnson’s Branch and Haven Lake. I have not seen it at the Blair’s Pond Tract but it almost certainly grows there within the Tantrough Branch swamp or the edges of the pond.

This last grouping consists of some unusual orchids that I have only seen once or twice. Hopefully you will be more diligent than I and see several, or all of the following.

The Large Twayblade, Liparis lilifolia, I have seen growing along the cross country trail on the old post road near Blair’s Pond.

Large Twayblade Orchid, deer browsed.
Large Twayblade flower detail

Although I have seen it in Maryland, I only saw it once at Blair’s Pond. Perhaps it still grows in some of the more undisturbed woodland areas. I would start looking for it in the woodland near the paw-paw patch. In the photo notice the top portion of the bloom spike is missing due to deer browsing.

An especially lovely orchid is the Green-fringed Orchid, Planathera lacera. To my knowledge it was first seen along the boardwalk behind Abbott’s Mill where the water water flows into the mill race from the bog area beside the parking lot.

Green fringed Orchid, Helen Lowe Metzman photo

I have also found a single specimen growing at the cedar bog area. If you should find this orchid please contact me since I do not have a decent photograph.

Next up is Ladies Tresses, Spiranthes sp. (probably S. praecox). It is characterized by small white flowers arranged in a spiral pattern around the stem, hence the Latin name Spira - spiral and anthes - flowers.

Spiranthes praecox in grass

I have seen them on the dry shoulders, among the grass of nearby Big Stone Beach Road. Just a few days ago an observer told me she had seen them growing near Blair’s Pond.

Spiranthes praecox flower detail

Based upon her description, I think she was correct in her identification. You might discover some growing in the picnic area of Blair’s Pond or under the power lines near the cross country course starting line. Another promising location would be under the power lines at the Nature Center since I have noticed some plants that require similar conditions growing on that site.

I will include this next orchid that I have only seen growing at the Primehook National Wildlife Refuge, the Southern Twayblade, Listera australis, listed as S-3 in the Rare Vascular Plants of Delaware, compiled by William A. McAvoy of the Delaware Natural Heritage Program, growing in association with Pink Moccasin Orchids along the nature trail at Turkel Pond.

Southern Twayblade

Hopefully next season you can hike there and enjoy them too. Their flowers are so specialized they hardly look like flowers at all.

Remember, these orchids are small, dainty, and unobtrusive, all under fifteen inches in height with fingernail sized flowers. To really appreciate them, use your hand lens. Whenever possible, I have tried to include some close up photos to help you recognize these treasures. So take your children or your loved ones, and get outside and enjoy them!

Paul’s note: This post was timed to arrive shortly before the blooming occurs.

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