Thursday, February 17, 2005

The Tough Side of Orchids

Today was clear but cold and windy, a good day to wander about the garden cutting off some of last year's dead stems, leaving the ground litter for protection . To my delight I see the leaves (shown below) of two native wild orchids: Tipularia and Aplectrum. These two terrestrial orchids are similar in that they both produce hibernal (winter) leaves. Their leaves appear in fall and persist through the winter, then die back in late spring, the plants producing their flower spikes leafless in late summer. Tipularia discolor is the crane fly orchid, its dainty, greenish flowers with red overtones, surrounding a fairly tall spike, indeed appearing like small crane flies , each having a very long spur.The leaves of this orchid are purplish on the back, as shown in the photo. Aplectrum hyemale (Aplectrum meaning spurless, and hyemale referring to winter), has a large, single leaf, corrugated with silvery lines.This is the Adam & Eve orchid (referring to the fact that this year's leaf arises from a new pseudobulb, which remains attached to last year's pseudobulb), or it is also called the putty root orchid, since the American Indians crushed the pseudobulbs to obtain a fluid which they used to mend pottery. This orchid is said to be easy to grow from seed (which is very unusual), but mine hasn't bloomed yet to try it out. I've tried to be careful to obtain my native, terrestrial orchids from sources that propagate them in the lab (I do have two orchids growing naturally here in our woods: the showy Orchis, and Loessel's twayblade). However, I do have two obtained orchids that were probably not propagated; the first is Cypripedium calceolus, the yellow ladyslipper (I actually did see a single plant of this orchid growing in the woods near here many years ago, but there is a housing development there now). The yellow ladyslipper in my garden was given to me 20 years ago by a doctor friend of mine, who had a wonderful garden, growing delphiniums taller than a man. He developed prostate cancer, and as it became terminal, he offered me my pick of a plant from his garden, to remember him by, and I took the ladyslipper, knowing it would likely perish otherwise. To my surprise and delight, it has since survived moves through three gardens , and has multiplied nicely. I don't know where my friend got it; it could well have been growing in his garden naturally, as he had lived in a wooded area for many years. The second orchid I have that may not have come from a lab is Goodyerea pubescens, the rattle-snake or jewel orchid (so named for its leaves patterned with intersecting silver lines). I bought this orchid before I realized there is a difference between nursery grown and nursery propagated native plants; the former may have been dug from the woods and grown on for a year in the nursery, then sold. I excuse myself on this plant, since it has multiplied nicely since I got it, and I've come to realize that collecting, while definitely contributing to the decline of native orchids, probably isn't the biggest threat; loss of habitat, and decline of existing habitat are bigger threats. There was a huge colony of Goodyerea growing on a bluff in an isolated and seldom visited preserve in Iowa, called White Pine Hollow.I had visited it several times about twenty-five years ago, seeing literally thousands of jewel orchids. Last summer my wife and I visited the preserve, and not one Goodyerea was seen.It's possible that they were collected, but I doubt it; there are no trails, and it is rarely visited (we actually temporarily got lost coming out, and lying right on top of the ground on the deer trail we were aimlessly following, I found a shiny 1946 dime). I think it far more likely the decimation of the orchids was caused by the countless deer which now inhabit our woodlands; since Goodyerea is also evergreen, it is being cleaned out by starving deer in the Winter. The poor Goodyerea also is disappearing because of the invasion of garlic mustard, that has exploded in shady woodlands; since the new mustard plants are also evergreen, they shade out the orchids trying to gather energy during the cold months. I give every year to the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation, which does more than any other organization to preserve natural environments here in Iowa, but I fear it is a losing cause. So, I tend my orchid babies, and take pleasure in their steady increase, even finding showy Orchis colonies springing up as volunteers in the azalea beds.

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