Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Nodding ladies' tresses orchid

As the days grow shorter and shadows lengthen, fall blooming orchids begin their annual show. Commonly found everywhere from Ozark glades, moist woods, and even some lawns, orchids of the genus Spiranthes send up their truly elegant stalk of white flowers between late July through November. Called Ladies' tresses orchids, these single stalked orchids have twisted stems which resemble braids. Small white flowers arranged in a spiral cover the length of the stem, providing accessible nectar sources for small bees who march easily from the bottom to the top.

Well, not all Spiranthes are fall bloomers; S. lucida blooms in mid-May in Missouri, and S. vernalis, despite the name, begins blooming in early July. Slight differences between the many species make initial identification a little tricky in late summer and fall, when most of them burst forth in bloom. Most species lack leaves during flowering time, but S. ovalis, known primarily from southeast Missouri (Steyermark's site was a previously timbered tract of land outside the park), possesses small strappy leaves at the base of the plant when in flower. The number of flowers per twist provides another defining characteristic between species. Some have two flowers per twist, others have three, and some just one.

I met my first Spiranthes in a cattle pasture outside of Mack's Creek, Missouri. I looked, searched, really scoured the site looking for any hope of savanna restoration potential because the landowner wanted prairie grasses outside his back door: Fescue, fescue, fescue, orchid! fescue, fescue, post oak sprouts. I recommended that he burn his property annually to see what came up. After all, I had just spent months on a reclaimed strip mine that was nominated for a Natural Area as a great example of high quality prairie.

I met the more robust S. magnicamporum a few months later when trying to save a glade from a superfluous trail building exercise in the Niangua Basin. The orchid species used to be tracked by the Natural Heritage Database, with occurrences recorded in a log somewhere in Jefferson City. But with glade restoration projects taking off statewide, the once conservative S. magnicamporum isn't tracked anymore because it shows up early in the restoration process. Nevertheless, I thought a whole thriving colony of the plants would stop a trail from ripping across the sensitive glade resources. (The trail was routed through a gnarly stand of cedars instead.)

When in southeast Missouri, I measured the success of our prescribed fire program by the floristic quality indices in post-burn plant surveys. I remember exclaiming to the surrounding cypress trees and green tree frogs an audible, "AHH!" when I saw the bottomland forest floor literally covered in hundreds of S. ovalis plants. The pictures all turned out really blurry because I was shaking with excitement and the deep dense forest never saw the light of day. My shutter speed never worked well in the forest. (I think it prefers open woodlands, like the owner.)

And then I met this one pictured, this lovely, tall, elegant orchid, perched at the edge of a small degraded fen in the Current River Hills. The botanist I dragged along on my plant list expedition immediately said, "oh, cool...," S. lacera var. gracilis." I dutifully recorded it in my book, then peered into the flowers as we watched a bee take nectar from every single one of them. It's always a treat to find an orchid in bloom in the Ozarks, but sometimes, we get greedy. Sometimes we want it to be the more conservative ones, as in this case when I really wanted it to be S. lucida, known only from fens and seeps of the Shannon-Carter-St. Francois Mountains area. Nevertheless, an orchid is an orchid and it was lovely to see in full flower as we hunkered down to watch the bee and it doesn't matter that it's not rare because it still has value and it's truly exquisite.


Anonymous said...

Exquisite flower, exquisite writing. I only know the surface of the Ozarks - you know its soul.

Allison Vaughn said...

Oh, you're being sweet. You understand the Ozarks, I just fawn over them. You would have been captivated by the little bee!