…but craneflies are plants—specifically, orchids, or Tipularia discolor (cranefly orchid).* This past August, the Webster Groves Nature Study Society (WGNSS) Botany Group traveled to the Mississippi Lowlands of southeastern Missouri to look for two species of native orchids, this being one of them. They were not easy to find—even with a location tip, it took a group effort to find them. But persistence paid off, and we found a patch with about 20 individual plants, most in full bloom and a few slightly past.
*One little known “rule” about common names is that the adjective and object (in this case, “crane” being the adjective” and “fly” being the “object”) are separated when the object is true and combined when the object is false or used together as an adjective for another object. Thus, flies in the family Tipulidae are called “crane flies,” because they truly are flies, while orchids of the genus Tipularia are called “cranefly” orchids because they are truly not flies and together form an adjective. Butterfly, dragonfly, and ladybug are examples of straight false objects (thus, for which the common names are compound words), while honey bee, house fly, and assassin bug are further examples of true objects (thus, for which the common names are not compound words).
Everybody who has ever seen this orchid talks about how hard they are to see (despite their relatively tall stature), yet nothing prepares you for just how remarkably difficult they are to see until you encounter them yourself for the first time! I believe this is because of the environment they are in—a dimly-lit forest with dappled light—combined with the lack of contrasting colors on the plants themselves.
This species was not reported from Missouri until 1983, relatively recent, and while for a time it remained known in state only from the southeastern lowlands, it has more recently been reported from several counties across southern Missouri as far northwest as Hickory County. Considering how difficult the plants can be to see, it is tempting to think that this is simply a case of underreporting, but to the contrary the same phenomenon has been observed in Illinois and other states at the edge of its range, leading most botanists to conclude that the species is actually expanding its range. Of course, why this is occurring is anybody’s guess, but it is somewhat satisfying to see at least one native orchid doing well while many others are in decline.
I was extremely fortunate in that I did not end up with a bad case of poison ivy as a result of photographing these plants!
By pure coincidence, the WGNSS Botany Group decided to visit Victoria Glades for today’s weekly field trip—just one day after I’d made my own solo visit, so for me a bonus visit! You might think that would result in me seeing the same things that I’d already seen, but unlike yesterday’s solo outing, I had the benefit of multiple pairs of eyes and solid botanical expertise accompanying me and directing my attention to several new-to-me plants.
A clump of sunflowers (Helianthus sp.) caught our attention even before we left the parking lot. Our initial impression was Jerusalem artichoke (H. tuberosus), but it lacked the alternate uppermost leaves usually found in that species. Nevertheless, when we ran it through the key and came to a choice between this species or woodland sunflower (H. hirsutus), we decided that it must be H. tuberosus. As we walked by another clump of the plants, we noticed the first insect of the day—a still-bedded-down helmeted squash bug (Euthochtha galeator), a type of leaffooted bug (family Coreidae)—on one of the older flower heads.
On the glade proper (MDC “west” side), the group was just as excited to immediately see the Great Plains ladies’-tresses orchids (Spiranthes magnicamporum) in bloom as I was yesterday, and I couldn’t resist the urge to take just a few more photos of two of impressively flowering specimens. We also noted the now brilliant red flowering dogwoods (Cornus florida) that anchored the small woody hammocks dotting the glade and were surprised to find a total of eight “tree” species taking refuge in the hammocks, the others being Carolina buckthorn (Rhamnus caroliniana), deciduous holly (Ilex decidua), eastern red-cedar (Juniperus virginiana), dwarf hackberry (Celtis tenuifolia), sugar maple (Acer saccharum), gum bumelia (Sideroxylon lanuginosum), and persimmon (Diospyros virginiana).
We made our way to the interface between the glade proper and a large dry post oak woodland hammock, where prairie gentian (Gentiana puberulenta) was found last year. As we walked, we got into a discussion about the pronunciation of the species name for Solidago gattingeri (Gattinger’s goldenrod). While “guh-TIN-jur-eye” may follow general guidelines for pronouncing latinized names, these guidelines do not apply to patronyms—i.e., scientific names derived from the name of a person, and for which the pronunciation of the person’s name is conserved in its latinized form. Since S. gattingeri was named after the German-born botanist Augustin Gattinger (pronounced “GAH-ting-er”) (1825–1903), the latinized form, which has an “i” added to the end of the name, and is thus pronounced “GAH-ting-er-eye.
Reaching the interface and searching for the gentian would prove fruitless, but it was not without its consolations. The first of these was one of the blue asters, which we eventually determined to be azure aster (Symphyotrichum oolentangiense)—distinguished by its rough leaves with the basal ones arrowhead-shaped. This species sparked a further conversation about how to pronounce the double-o at the beginning of the name. In latinized nomenclature, all vowels must be pronounced (except the diphthongs ae and oe, both of which are pronounced “ee”). The specific epithet derives from the Olentangy River in Ohio, but the person who named the species misspelled it, adding an extra “o” at the beginning. Unfortunately, the rules of nomenclature demand that original spellings, even those considered misspellings, be conserved (unless certain special conditions are met), thus, the specific epithet must begin with a double-o, and both of them must be pronounced. Further, since it is derived from a place name, the pronunciation of “Olentangy” also must be preserved. As a result, the species name is pronounced “oh-OH-len-TAN-jee-in-see.”
As we continued searching the glade-woodland interface, we encountered a healthy little patch of rough goldenrod (Solidago radula). Only a few of the plants bore inflorescences in good condition, but the plants were nevertheless recognizable by their small size and numerous rigid, scabrous, serrate leaves. We were pleasantly surprised to find this fairly conservative species (CC = 6), and everybody agreed that the species name is pronounced “RAD-yew-luh.”
When we reached the area where we were certain we should find prairie gentian, we instead found silky aster (Symphyotrichum sericeum)—their silvery leaves glistening in the sun and branchy stems mostly devoid of lower leaves making them visible and recognizable even from afar. This highly conservative species (CC = 9) is restricted to only a handful of states in the upper Midwest.
Once satisfied that we’d done our due diligence in our search for prairie gentian, we headed towards the top of the knoll where stiff sunflower (Helianthus pauciflorus) and rough white lettuce (Nabalus asper) have been observed in recent years. The sunflowers were found easily, though all in the apparently expanding patch were past bloom, but it took careful searching and reference to a GPS reading to find what amounted to just two, post-bloom white lettuce individuals. This latter species has a distribution centered roughly across Missouri and Iowa and is fairly conservative (CC = 7).
As we headed back towards the parking lot, we passed through a peninsula of dry post oak woodland, giving us the opportunity to see yet another blue aster, this one being prairie aster (Symphyotrichum turbinellum). This is another fairly conservative species (CC = 6) whose distribution centers over Missouri and extends to only a few surrounding states. The elliptic leaves, branched habit, and “vase-shaped” involucre were all clues to its identity.
By then, only John and Kathy remained and were ready to call it a day, but I had a hankering to visit the TNC “east” side to check the ninebarks (Physocarpus olulifolius intermedius) that grow along the toeslopes at the interface between the glade proper and the riparian woodland below to look for Dicerca pugionata—a spectacular jewel beetle (family Buprestidae) that breeds in the plant’s woody branches. This beetle is rarely encountered throughout most of its range across the eastern U.S. but seems to be common at this location—perhaps due to the general unthriftiness of the plants growing along the toeslopes, a drier than preferred situation that may compromise their ability to fend off colonization by the beetle. The beetles can be reliably found in spring and fall by examining the stems and leaves. As I searched for the beetles, I encountered “blue aster #4” on the day—aromatic aster (Symphyotrichum oblongifolium). In the case of this species, the reflexed phyllaries, branched habit, and oblanceolate sessile leaves absent at the base were the first clues to its identity. Crushing one of the leaves and smelling its fragrance left no further doubt.
Continuing my search for the beetles, I noticed a garden spider (Argiope sp.) in its web. Something about it did not look right for the species we normally see in Missouri—the black-and-yellow garden spider (A. aurantia), and I eventually determined it to be instead a subadult male banded garden spider (A. trifasciata). The webs of this species tend to be more hidden than those of A. aurantia, and the preferred habitat is said to be drier, which may explain why this species tends not to be seen very often compared to its more commonly encountered cousin.
Eventually, I found two D. pugionata individuals perched on the outer twigs and leaves of ninebark—just as I expected, and I took comfort knowing that this rarely encountered species continues to thrive in this unique location.
Remarkably, I would encounter one more “blue aster,” finding spreading aster (Symphyotrichum patens) as I searched around and through the dry post oak woodland at the top of the slope in hopes that I might still find prairie gentian. This species, found in Missouri only south of the Missouri River, is easy to identify (even by entomologists) by virtue of its purple ray flowers with yellow disks and strongly clasping stem leaves with distinctive rounded basal auricles.
Five “blue asters” on the day, however, was enough to make this entomologist’s head spin, and with five hours in the field on a spectacular fall day, I finally headed back to the parking lot to close out the day.
The late summer explosion of yellow composites has subsided greatly over the past week—Missouri conflower (Rudbeckia missouriensis) and rosinweed (Silphium integrifolium), and ashy sunflower (Helianthus mollis) have all gone to seed, and only sporadic still-blooming individuals of prairie dock (Silphium terebinthinaceum) and goldenrods—including old field goldenrod (Solidago nemoralis), stiff goldenrod (S. rigida), and Gattinger’s goldenrod (S. gattingeri)—can be found. Gattinger’s goldenrod, in particular, deserved extra attention, as this species has only a few known population centers and comes as close to a true Missouri endemic as any plant species in the state. It can be distinguished by its basally disposed, glaucus leaves which become very small on the upper stem and its pyramidal inflorescences radiating out from the stem in all directions.
The decline of the fall composites does not mean, however, that the glades are now without color, as vibrant purples still dot the glade perimeter in the form of Liatris asperas (rough blazingstar).
Sumacs, as well—both shining (Rhus copallinum) and fragrant (R. aromatica), and flowering dogwood (Cornus florida) have already begun turning rusty to bright red.
Nor does it mean that nothing new is coming into flower—Great Plains ladies’-tresses orchid (Spiranthes magnicamporum) are blooming for the first time this week, and I saw numerous individuals still developing their inflorescences to suggest a fantastic October display is around the corner.
This month’s destination for the WGNSS Natural History Photography Group was Orchid Valley Natural Area in Hawn State Park. This natural area is south of the main park and not normally open to the public, but we were granted permission to enter by the park administration. Our targets were several species of orchids and other rare plants that are known to occur in the area—showy orchis (Galearis spectabilis) being the one I hoped most to see.
There are no trails here—not even a place to park, as we squeezed our cars against the side of the road at a spot that appeared to provide good access. A bit of GPS-guided bushwhacking brought us to increasingly rough and sloping ground that ended up at the edge of a cliff overlooking one of the sandstone box canyons that this area is know for—down below was where we wanted to go. Wild azaleas lined the upper canyon edges with their stunning pink blossoms. We followed the canyon edge and found a way down, then circled back into the canyon to find a stunning waterfall, its sandstone walls dripping with mosses and ferns. We spent quite a bit of time here photographing the waterfall and surrounding area before eventually resuming the search for the orchids that we came to see.
Sadly, the orchids were not yet in bloom—not even close, another victim of the cold, late spring we’ve been experiencing. Casey, our group leader, did find some very small showy orchis leaves, and we saw some nice clumps of another native orchid, rattlesnake plantain (Goodyera pubescens), an evergreen orchid that blooms during late summer. We hiked up another drainage that led to another box canyon—lacking a waterfall but equally impressive, nonetheless—but found no orchids in bloom there, either. We did, however, see cinnamon ferns sending up their spike-like fertile fronds and aggregations of antlion larvae (a.k.a. “doodlebugs”) in the soil beneath the sandstone ledges.
You might think failure to find what we were looking for would result in a disappointing field trip—far from it! Time in the field with like-minded friends in a beautiful spot is always a pleasure, and when it comes to searching for rare plants (or insects, or whatever), failure is the norm—making success, when it does come, that much sweeter. There will be other chances to see showy orchis (perhaps in a couple of weeks).
Last night the Webster Groves Nature Study Society (WGNSS) held their 2019 Nature Photo Contest, and I was fortunate to have a 1st place winner in the ‘Plants and Fungi’ category! This photograph of grassleaved lady’s tresses orchid (Spiranthes vernalis) flowers was taken at Taberville Prairie Natural Area in St. Clair Co., Missouri. Like other species of lady’s tresses orchids, their tubular flowers are arranged in a spiral along the inflorescence and cross-pollinated primarily by long-tongued bees (e.g. bumblebees, Bombus spp., and megachilid bees) (van der Cingel 2001).
Spiranthes is one of the more complex genera of North American orchids, with seven species known to occur in Missouri (Summers 1985), and like almost all orchids, their pollination biology is fascinating! The flowers are “protandrous”, i.e., they are functionally male when they first open and become functionally female as they age. Since they open sequentially from the base of the inflorescence as it grows, this results in female flowers on the lower portion of the inflorescence and male flowers on the upper portion. Thus, bee pollinators tend to act as pollen donors when visiting lower flowers and pollen recipients when visiting upper flowers. Male pollinia are attached to the bee’s proboscis as it tries to access the nectar secreted into the base of the floral tube and then come in contact with the female stigma in the next flower that the bee visits. Bees generally start at the bottom of an inflorescence when visiting a plant and then spiral up to the top before flying to the next plant. Such “acropetal movement” is likely a result of the tendency for nectar rewards to be greater in the lower flowers, and it ultimately promotes cross-fertilization between neighboring plants.
This was the 4th edition of the contest, which has been held every other year since the inaugural edition in 2013. I’ve earned 2nd and 3rd place honors in the plants category each time before; however, this was my first win in that category. In addition to plants, I also had entries in the ‘Invertebrates’ (restricted to photos taken in Missouri or one of its contiguous states) and ‘Travel’ (open to photos taken anywhere in the world) categories, with one photo each making it to the final round of judging. You’ve seen them both before—Neotibicen superbus (below left—photographed at Mincy Conservation Area, Taney Co., Missouri) and Agrilus walsinghami (below right—photographed at Davis Creek Park, Washoe Co., Nevada). In the end, however, they both got beat out by the competition, so I only had the one winning photograph this time. Nevertheless, it was a 1st place winner, so I am very satisfied.
The WGNSS Nature Photo Contest has quickly become one of the organization’s marquee events, with the number of entries, caliber of competition, and attendance all exceeding the previous three editions. My thanks to the judges who volunteered their time, the attendees who supported the event, and especially to Bill Duncan, Chair of WGNSS’s Nature Photography Group (and an expert nature photographer in his own right), who worked hard to make this event the success that it was (and took home some well-deserved wins of his own). I look forward to the next competition in 2021!
Summers, B. 1981.Missouri Orchids. Missouri Department of Conservation, Natural History Series No. 1, 92 pp.
van der Cingel, N. A. 2001.An Atlas of Orchid Pollination: America, Africa, Asia and Australia. A. A. Balkema, Rotterdam, Netherlands, 296 pp.
I’ve been fortunate to have the chance to travel far and wide in my searches for insects—from the Gypsum Hills of the Great Plains and Sky Islands of the desert southwest to the subtropical riparian woodlands of the Lower Rio Grande Valley, tropical thorn forests of southern Mexico and veld of southern Africa. No matter how far I travel, however, I’m always happy to return to the Missouri Ozarks. It is here where I cut my entomological teeth so many years ago, and though I’ve now scrabbled around these ancient hills for more than three decades it continues to satisfy my thirst for natural history. Though not nearly as expansive as the Great Plains, there are nevertheless innumerable nooks and crannies nestled in the Ozarks, and I find myself constantly torn between looking for new spots (it would take several lifetimes to find them all) and going back to old favorites. Living in the northeastern “foothills” in the outskirts of St. Louis provides an ideal vantage for exploration; however, sometimes I am truly amazed at the natural history gems that can be found within a stone’s throw from my house. Some examples I’ve featured previously include Shaw Nature Reserve, home to a hotspot of the one-spotted tiger beetle, Castlewood State Park, where I found a gorgeously reddish population of the eastern big sand tiger beetle, and Victoria Glades Natural Area, site of the very first new species (and perhaps also the most beautiful) that I ever collected.
Englemann Woods Natural Area | Franklin Co., Missouri
Today I found another such area—Englemann Woods Natural Area, and at only 5 miles from my doorstep it is the closest natural gem that I have yet encountered. One of the last old-growth forests in the state, its deep loess deposits on dolomite bedrock overlooking the Missouri River valley support rich, mesic forests on the moister north and east facing slopes and dry-mesic forests on the drier west-facing slopes dissected by rich, wet-mesic forests with their hundreds-of-years-old trees. A remarkable forest of white oak, ash, basswood and maple in an area dominated by monotonous second-growth oak/hickory forests.
Steep north-facing slopes border the Missouri River valley.
It is not, however, the 200-year-old trees that will bring me back to this spot, but rather the understory on the north and east-facing slopes. Here occur some of the richest stands of eastern hornbean (Ostrya virginiana) that I have ever seen. This diminutive forest understory inhabitant is not particularly rare in Missouri, but as it prefers rather moist upland situations it is not commonly encountered in the dry-mesic forests that dominate much of the Ozarks. Stands of this tree, a member of the birch family (Betulaceae) are easy to spot in winter due to their habit of holding onto their dried canopy of tawny-brown leaves (see photo below).
Rich stands of eastern hornbeam (Ostrya virginiana) dominate the north- and east-slope understory.
Why am I so interested in this plant? It is the primary host of the jewel beetle species Agrilus champlaini. Unlike most other members of the genus, this species breeds in living trees rather than dead wood, their larvae creating characteristic swellings (galls, if you will) on the twigs and stems as they spiral around under the bark feeding on the cambium tissues before entering the wood to pupate and emerge as adults in spring. This species is known in Missouri from just two specimens, both collected by me way back in the 1980s as they emerged from galls that I had collected during the winter at two locations much further away from St. Louis. The presence of this rich stand of hornbeam just 5 miles from my home gives me the opportunity to not only search the area more thoroughly to look for the presence of galls from which I might rear additional specimens, but also to look for adults on their hosts during spring and (possibly, hopefully) succeed in photographing them alive.
Inside the “hornbeam forest.”
Another “draw” for me is the restoration work that has begun on some of the west-facing slopes in the areas. Pre-settlement Missouri was a far less wooded place than it is today, as evidenced by the richly descriptive writings penned by Henry Schoolcraft during his horseback journey through the Ozarks in the early 1800’s. At the interface between the great deciduous forests to the east and the expansive grasslands to the west, the forests of Missouri were historically a shifting mosaic of savanna and woodland mediated by fire. Relatively drier west-facing slopes were more prone to the occurrence of these fires, resulting in open woodlands with more diverse herbaceous and shrub layers. At the far extreme these habitats are most properly called “xeric dolomite/limestone prairie” but nearly universally referred to by Missourians as “glades”—islands of prairie in a sea of forest! I have sampled glades extensively in Missouri over the years, and they are perhaps my favorite of all Missouri habitats. However, it is not future glades or savannas that have me excited about Englemann Woods but rather the availability of freshly dead wood for jewel beetles and longhorned beetles resulting from the selective logging that has taken place as a first step towards restoration of such habitats on these west-slopes. The downed trees on these slopes and subsequent mortality of some still standing trees that is likely to result from the sudden exposure of their shade adapted trunks to full sun are likely to serve as a sink for these beetles for several years to come. I will want to use all the tools at my disposal for sampling them while I have this opportunity—beating, attraction to ultraviolet lights, and fermenting bait traps being the primary ones. It looks like I’d better stock up on molasses and cheap beer!
Restoration efforts on the west-facing slopes begins with selective logging.
Eastern red-cedar (Juniperus virginiana) is native to Missouri, but in our time it has become a major, invasive pest tree. The suppression of fire that came with settlement also freed this tree from a major constraining influence on its establishment in various habitats around the state, primarily dolomite/limestone glades. Nowadays most former glade habitats, unless actively managed to prevent it, have become choked with stands of this tree, resulting in shading out of the sun-loving plants that historically occurred much more commonly in the state. Untold dollars are spent each year by landscape managers on mechanical removal and controlled burns to remove red-cedar and prevent its reestablishment in these habitats. There is one habitat in Missouri, however, in which eastern red-cedar has reigned supreme for centuries or possibly millenia—dolomite/limestone bluff faces.
Craggly, old Eastern red-cedars (Juniperus virginiana) cling tenaciously to the towering dolomite bluffs.
With little more than a crack in the rock to serve as a toehold, red-cedars thrive where no other tree can, growing slowly, their gnarled trunks contorted and branches twisted by exposure to sun and wind and chronic lack of moisture. Some of the oldest trees in Missouri are red-cedars living on bluffs, with the oldest example reported coming from Missouri at an incredible 750–800 years old. There is something awe-inspiring about seeing a living organism that existed in my home state before there were roads and cars and guns. These ancient trees are now an easy drive from my house (though a rather strenuous 300-ft bushwhacking ascent to reach the bluff tops)—they seem ironically vulnerable now after having endured for so long against the forces of nature. For me, they will serve as a spiritual draw—a reason to return to this place again regardless of what success I might have at finding insects in the coming months.
Yesterday my girls (wife Lynne and daughters Mollie and Madison) took me and my father to the Missouri Botanical Garden for Fathers Day. Although I’m an entomologist, I also have a strong botanical bent, and although my wife and father are not scientists like me, they nevertheless find a day at the Missouri Botanical Garden as enjoyable as I do. The girls, on the other hand, will never admit that they like it the way the rest of us do, but I think deep inside they enjoy it very much and, in later years, will look upon these visits as some of their fondest Mothers and Fathers Day memories.
Me and daughters Mollie and Madison.
My father and I have been back together for 20 years now. With my wife and daughters, he has become one of the most important persons in my life. I wrote an essay about my father four years ago that explains how he made me whole—it still rings true today.
Me and Pop.
I have been to the Missouri Botanical Garden many, many times over the years, but one sight have have still never seen is a corpse flower (Amorphophallus titanum). I learned earlier this week that one of their plants is about ready to bloom, so I eagerly looked for this plant as we wound our way through the Climatron. As we came near the end and I still hadn’t seen it, I wondered if somehow I had missed it along the path. Suddenly I caught a glimpse of the giant 3′ tall flower bud near the end of the footpath, and I knew instantly that I had found what I was looking for.
Corpse flower (Amorphophallus titanum) getting ready to bloom.
I will be keeping track of the progress of this flower over the next couple of weeks on the Missouri Botanical Garden Facebook page in hopes that I can see it again when the flower opens fully—a rare botanical treat that few people ever get the chance to experience!
Corpse flower explained.
In my younger years when I had a bit more free time on my hands I was a hobbyist orchid grower. I didn’t have a greenhouse but nevertheless managed to keep a steady supply of plants in bloom by growing them outdoors under shade cloth with heavy watering and fertilizing during the summer and moving them indoors under fluorescent lights and in bright windows during the winter. I don’t have nearly the time for such pursuits these days, but I still enjoy looking at their exquisite and infinitely diverse blooms whenever I have the chance, and the Climatron never fails to disappoint.
One of many epiphytic orchids blooming in the Climatron.
While walking through the Climatron, I noticed a very exotic looking lizard on the trunk of one of the trees. I watched it licking exudate from the trunk and thought such behavior seemed rather odd. I later learned that this was the Standing’s day gecko (Phelsuma standingi), and that it might have an important role in pollinating the double coconut palm (Loidiocea maldivica). Both are endemic to the Seychelles Islands north of Madagascar, with the latter bearing the largest seed of any plant in the world (up to 45 lbs. in weight). The photo below was taken of another individual through the glass of its terrarium and, thus, lacks some clarity, but it shows the vivid colors and markings that distinguish these diurnal geckos from the other more typically nocturnal members of the gecko infraorder.
Standing’s day gecko (Phelsuma standingi).
While not gracing this post in a photo, many thanks to my loving wife, Lynne, who is the best mother my daughters could ask for and who helped make yesterday the special day for me and my father that it was!
As flowers go, I have a passion for orchids. Despite comprising perhaps the largest family of flowering plants on earth, most people think of orchids as rare, epiphytic plants restricted to the lush, hyper-diverse, tropical rain forests of South America and southeast Asia. In reality, terrestrial orchids abound in the temperate regions of the Northern Hemisphere, with more than 200 species occurring in the United States and Canada. Some, such as the lady slippers (genus Cypripedium), have blossoms as magnificent as their tropical counterparts, while others are less conspicuous and easy to overlook; however, all share the hallmark that unites the family—a modified petal forming a conspicuous lower lip¹
¹ Interestingly, the lip is actually derived from the uppermost petal, but in most species the flower twists during development so that the lip is oriented at the bottom.
I’m sure my neighbors hate my front yard. I don’t use fertilizers or herbicides, and I’m unconcerned about the moss that grows amongst the thin stands of mixed grasses under the tall native oaks that shade much of the yard. My neighbor down the street especially probably shakes his head as he walks his dog past my yard every day, frustrated that I don’t share his passion for the lush, thick, über-green bluegrass monoculture that he has achieved (and must pay somebody to cut at least once a week). Spring must be especially frustrating for him, as I don’t even cut the grass until late May, giving the lawn an especially ragged, unkempt appearance. However, whatever my yard lacks in graminaceous greatness, it more than makes up for in its diversity of woodland natives—spring beauty, toothwort, trout lily, violets, coral bells… and spring coralroot. I have several colonies growing at different spots in the yard, all marked with surveyor’s flags to prevent accidental trampling until their bloom period ends and I can (begrudgingly) begin mowing the grass (no more than once a month, if I can get away with it). I’ve enjoyed these coralroot colonies every spring since I’ve lived here, but this spring was the first that I took the opportunity to photograph their blooms.
Of the three Corallorhiza species that can be found in Missouri, C. wisteriana is the most common, occurring in rich or rocky acidic soils of low wooded valleys, ravine bottoms, along streams and on ridges and slopes of open woods (Summers 1981). My yard qualifies as the latter, occurring on a limestone ridge in mesic upland forest made only slightly more open by the late 1980s construction of the neighborhood and its minimal disturbance limited to the roads, driveways, home footprints and a small amount of associated lawn. It is distinguished in Missouri from C. odontorhiza (Autumn coralroot) by its spring flowering period and larger flowers with notched or lobed lip, and from the rare C. trifida (known from only a few Missouri counties) by the purple or brownish stems and spotted lip.
As suggested by the unusual coloration, Corallorhiza species are largely (though not completely) lacking in chlorophyll, and as a result are mostly unable to photosynthesize their own food. Instead, the bulbous rhizomes remain hidden within the soil for much of the year, forming symbiotic relationships with soil fungi and flowering only when conditions are favorable (Luer 1975). The past several springs have been wet here, and accordingly I’ve been rewarded with the wonderful sight of these exquisite tiny blossoms.
I can’t say that I’m entirely happy with these photographs, as I found it difficult to get the entire blossom in focus—when the petals were in focus the lip was not, and vice versa, even in straight lateral profile. Nevertheless, they still show the delicate structure of the lip, with its scalloped edge and crystalline-appearing surface. The blooms are fading now—soon there will be no above-ground evidence of their existence, and my neighbor and wife will likely gang up on me to finally power up the lawn mower.
Luer, C. A. 1975.The Native Orchids of the United States and Canada Excluding Florida. The New York Botanical Garden, 361 pp. + 96 color plates.
Summers, B. 1981.Missouri Orchids. Missouri Department of Conservation, Natural History Series No. 1, 92 pp.