Friday, September 9, 2011

Spiranthes Orchids

There are two things that are especially great about September. First is the disappearance of chiggers. There may be one or two strays, but it is now safe to sit in the long grass admiring flowers for extended periods. Second is the blooming of many species of Spiranthes orchids, an excellent flower to admire.

This is Spiranthes vernalis, a tall spike with a spiraled cluster of flowers on top. The arrangement of flowers on the spike is the first characteristic you notice when you come upon a Spiranthes. Loosely coiled vs. tightly coiled or single spiral vs. double spiral are all helpful in determining species, but the genus can present some complications. The various species can be quite variable and the descriptions are full of caution words such as typically, usually or mostly. Combine that with various authors all zeroing in on their own select few key characters and you can soon get frustrated. Despite this, they’re still beautiful plants.

Basal leaves are usually present earlier in the year when there is less shading from surrounding vegetation. Presence or absence of leaves at flowering time is also used to determine identity. Again, this is a variable characteristic that can lead to the wrong conclusion if other identifying marks are ignored.

Though they can appear quite brilliant at close range, even a large Spiranthes is easily hidden in the grass. This is Spiranthes lacera, similar to vernalis in appearance, but easily distinguishable by a bright green spot centered in the bottom lip of the flower. After your eye reestablishes a search image, it becomes easier to spy the orchids in the grass. After spotting one plant, you can often scan the surrounding area and find others. Don’t forget to look down, because there’s a good chance you’re also standing on one.

People seem to have the idea that orchids are frail plants. They’re amazed that such a delicate flower can thrive in the harsh conditions of these dry hillside prairies. This attitude probably comes from hearing about the special care that many tropical orchids need in order to survive in captivity. But many of the tropical orchids live atop tree branches or in the detritus collected by angled rocks, situations that seem just as inhospitable as a rocky hillside. I’m sure the Spiranthes would require special care if they were transplanted from the conditions to which they are adapted. In their natural habitat, the Spiranthes thrive and seem capable of holding their own against any competitor. I enjoy seeing them and am gratified by their willingness to colonize new areas as they are created.


  1. I love the Spiranthes orchids too, such incredible little plants. Had the pleasure of making two new county records involving these little plants last week. Discovered Spiranthes lacera var. gracilis in Madison county as well as S. ovalis in Clark county. Goes to show how good these guys are at hiding!

  2. Hi Steve...I am still alive ....I think lol
    What a lovely plant ...and so inconspicuous..hardly no it was there!!
    I have seen one close to that, but it was a light lavendar color!!

    Have a grat weekend

  3. Steve,

    I hope your claim about the absence of chiggers in september is true. Next time I visit a prairie I'll wear my regular shoes and not the rubber boots Ive been wearing all summer.

    Spiranthes lacera var. gracilis bloom phenology is justs fading away over here at big hollow. I hope to see new ladies tresses species this year...


  4. Hi, Andrew. Good finds. S. ovalis hasn’t begun to bloom here. I’m anxiously awaiting their appearance.

    Hi, Karen. I don’t know how anyone could not love these flowers.

    Hi, Grace. These are pretty to look at, but not much for attracting butterflies. Glad to see you’ve still got butterflies there. We’ve been very butterfly poor around here since I sent all of ours to Maine.

    Hi, David. You can let me know if the September chigger decline is a localized phenomenon or a regional event.