When you speak about an orchid, most often tropical orchids come to mind. These are mostly found in florist’s climate-controlled coolers and used for corsages or grown as house plants. In order to grow them successfully as house plants you need knowledge of their watering needs, humidity and heat requirements and dormant periods. Orchids have long been admired for their gentle shapes, delicate features and alluring colors. A soft bright rich purple color is even named “orchid”.
Orchids are in the Orchidaceae family and are one of the two largest families of flowering plants with at least 25,000 species. They are a class of plants called monocotyledons or monocots for short, which is based on their method of pollination. They can be terrestrial or epiphytic. The roots of terrestrial are in the ground while epiphytic are in the air. Epiphytic orchids grow mostly in tropical or semitropical climates while terrestrial can grow in many areas. The name orchid comes from ancient Greek for testicle because of the shape of their root. Orchids are defined as perennial herbs because of their value to flavor, add fragrance and for medicinal uses. They grow in many states. They are also called ground orchids, the common name for more than 200 species that are found in swamps and woodlands of North America. They can be located in flood plains of rivers and streams, forests, grassy meadows and bogs. Virginia soils; acidic, shale, limestone and loams are ideal locations for orchids.
Orchids are not just beautiful to look at but can be wonderful to taste. The dried seed pods of Vanilla planifolia is used for baking and perfume while the dried leaves of Jumellea frangrans is used to flavor rum. Orchids are used for herbal remedies in China. Some have single flowers while most have a large number of flowers or racemose inflorescence in botanical jargon. Refer to onlyorchid.com for additional information.
So how can you visualize orchids in the wild?
Orchids are distinguished by their flowers, reproductive parts (column) and roots. In the wild, if found in bloom, they are seen to have a whorl, or circle of leaves at the ground level and sometimes a stem or pedicel extending upward. At the base of the flower is a whorl of green which is the sepal. Above and inside is the 2nd whorl of colored petals. These make up the perianth (sepals and petals) which are the nonreproductive parts. This acts to protect and to attract pollinators to the plant. Inside are the reproductive parts. There are three petals that are unique in that one is flat and serves as a landing platform or lip for pollinators. This is situated opposite the fertile stamen or stamens. The flowers are bilaterally symmetrical. The column is a tubular waxy structure at the center of the flower. The roots serve the purpose of anchoring and supplying nutrients and moisture. They are generally thicker than other plant roots.
Orchid leaves are simple, which is a leaf that does not divide into parts. Orchid seeds are very small, so small that they are distributed by the wind. A fungus or mycorrhiza helps them germinate in nature. Some fungi are very specific to this purpose and in other cases several can serve this purpose. The fungus penetrates the seeds and produces nutrients for growth. This unique symbiosis or interdependency is the reason why orchids will not survive being taken from the wild. Because orchids have few leaves which normally supply nutrients in the form of chlorophyll, they need another source. These nutrients can be artificially supplied when the plant is grown in artificial cultures.
Interesting DNA fact
DNA research of plants has revealed some interesting surprises. Orchids are considered a part of the asparagus order according to orchidologist Dr. Ken Cameron of the New York Botanical Garden in the Bronx. The asparagales order that includes asparagus is ancient, having emerged some 90 million years ago. This large plant group includes amaryllis, onions, irises, daffodils, agaves and yuccas, some very interesting corsage opportunities. Palm fossils more than 90 million years old have been found. Scientists have found that orchids predate the palms.
Some obscure orchids have a similar small black seed to the asparagales. The vanilla orchid is one of these and their seeds can be visualized in some vanilla ice creams.
Our wonderful native orchids
There are more than 5000 named species of native orchids found worldwide from the equator to the arctic tundra. Numerous others are unnamed and many others are being discovered all the time. The U.S. Wildflowers Database of Virginia lists seven general species of orchids: Puttyroot orchid, Calypso orchid, Pink lady slipper, Downy rattlesnake orchid, Yellow fringed orchid, Shadow witch orchid and Cranefly orchid. Each of the listed species may have numerous subspecies. Virginia has close to 60 species, the Northern Neck perhaps 24.
Native orchids are found on both the Northern Neck and Middle Peninsula. You need to know where to look while remembering that special symbiotic life-giving relationship with the fungus. If you must have them in your gardens they can be purchased from commercial growers. As with all natives please, check that the growers are not harvesting from the wild.
Native orchids bear very tiny seeds. A carefully guided effort through the Native Plant Society of the Northern Neck is being initiated to harvest that seed and its micorrhizal cohorts. These seeds will be used to help propagate additional plants to be transplanted into the wild.
Local maintained natural areas and state parks are excellent places to be able to visualize orchids in their native habitat. With bloom times from early spring (May-June) to summer they can be seen in all their glory. Contact your Native Plant Society or Audubon for information and locations. In the Northern Neck of Virginia, Hickory Hollow Nature Preserve and Chilton Woods State Forest are ideal locations to tour.
Where oh where are the native orchids?
Native orchids can be found all around us. The list is endless and to see them I recommend the trained eyes of The Native Plant Society. Some species are specific to known areas. The Lesser Whorled Pogonia Isotgria medeoloides is located in parts of Gloucester and Caroline Counties. At the U.S. Marine Base in Quantico one of North American’s largest populations is carefully protected from damage. They are monitored annually and timbering and military exercises are planned so as to not threaten this precious population. This has been called the rarest orchid east of the Mississippi by the Center for Plant Conservation.
More easily visualized is the Kentucky Yellow Lady (Lady’s) Slipper Cypripedium kentuckiense found in Lancaster County. Pink Lady Slipper is found near Chilton Woods.
Kentucky Yellow Lady Slipper grows in wetlands along with marsh marigolds and skunk cabbage. It likes the sweet soils made more alkaline by the water there. The population of orchids in Hickory Hollow is one of the reasons this area was and is preserved. Enjoy!
In March look for the blooms of Southern Twayblade Listera australis and in April the Green Adder’s Mouth Malaxis unifolia with its soft one-leaved form and the Showy Orchis Galearis spectabilis. Many other varieties can be seen if given careful directions or by joining a Native Plant Society walk led by experts in the field. Look for the Whorled Pogonia Isotria verticillata, the Large Twayblade or Brown Wide-Lipped orchid, Liparis liliifolia or the Fringed Orchid Plantanthera leucophaea or the Club-Spur orchid Planthera clavellata.
Search for the White Fringed Orchid Platanthera lacera and Golden Fringed Orchid Planthera cristata along with the Puttyroot or Adam and Eve Aplectrum hyeaole or the Cranefly orchid Tipularia discolor which is pollinated by night-flying moths. Identify the Rattlesnake Plantain Goodyera pubescens by its decorative leaves.
The Native Plant Society of the Northern Neck has an annual plant sale every September. The sale is not only a great source of native plants at reasonable prices but a great source
Ellis Squires, a member of the Native Plant Society of the Northern Neck has been traipsing after the native orchid for years. Ellis states that he has always been interested in botany. He worked with a grad student at William and Mary doing a plant survey of the Corrotoman Watershed. Upon visualizing several native orchids he became enamored with them. He has spent time since with Chris Johnstone following his survey of the Totuskey Watershed and viewed his finds. He has tried since to find as many species on the Northern Neck as possible. The endangered Small Whorled Pogonia is his most recent find. It exists only in 9 places in the entire state. His source of knowledge is well worth a morning’s walk.
Orchids are indeed special and worth viewing. As Ellis Squires noted in a recent talk about native orchids, “Take only photographs and leave only carefully placed footprints.”
Special thanks to Ellis Squires for the technical assistance in the writing of this article.