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The Unobtrusive Orchid

About thirty years ago, while conducting an environmental program for an elementary class, a strange plant caught my eye as I led the students on a trail through a freshwater wetland area in a state park preserve in New York.

The plant was about eight inches tall, purplish brown with a spike of tiny blossoms of the same color and two green basal leaves.  I knew that I had never seen it before and made a mental note of its location. After the program I returned to the area and examined the plant closely. The tiny flowers looked like orchids so with a guide book and wildflower plant key, I determined that it was southern twayblade, an orchid of wet woodlands and bogs. The identification was confirmed by botanists at Planting Fields Arboretum and it was the first time this plant was found along the Connetquot River wetlands.

This orchid is found from Texas to Vermont and is endangered in many states. In the north if you are in moist woodlands around Memorial Day Weekend, this plant’s peak bloom, look for it and if you do find it, let your local botanical society or botanical garden that you saw this plant. Due to its inconspicuous blooms it is possible that this plant is often overlooked by people visiting parks.

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The Orchid and the Fungus

An orchid that blooms in June of each year is the pink lady slipper. This orchid interacts with a specific soil fungus that enables its seeds to sprout. Unlike most seeds that have a food supply to provide nourishment for sprouting, this orchid’s seeds need the threads of the fungus to attach to the seed and to deliver important nutrients for the seed to grow.

What is interesting is once the plant grows it returns the favor by providing the fungus with nutrients for its survival. This mutualistic relationship is important to the survival of both species.

This is a fairly common orchid found in deciduous woodlands in the eastern U.S. Its showy, fragrance blossoms are easy to spot.

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Saving Wild Orchids

Out in eastern Long Island, New York, one summer’s day a colleague and I visited a bog surrounded by dunes to determine the health of the habitat. As we approached the area we noticed pinkish/purple flowers growing throughout the bog amongst bulrushes, sedges and wild grasses. At the fen, we discovered the flowers were part of a healthy population of an orchid called calopogon.

Also called grass pink due to its grass-like leaves and pink blossoms, this plant thrives in wet, sun-lit bogs in interdunal swales. I have seen this plant on the edges of wetlands in inland parks a few miles from the shore.

Although it was a healthy population of this pretty orchid, it is threatened by phragmites, an invasive common reed that is overtaking the bog. This reed grows over ten feet tall where to crowds out native plant species. This is a problem for bogs, marshes and wetlands in many areas of the U.S.

This invasive reed is not an easy species to control. One method is to wick each reed with a herbicide which travels throughout the plant killing it, but many people are opposed to using any kind of herbicides in pristine areas. Another method is to dig up the plant, but that would destroy the blog.

Such is the dilemma biologists face when dealing with invasive species. Only with education of the general public can these obstacles be overcome and we can maintain the rich diversity of our habitats.


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Helping an Endangered Orchid

When I worked for state parks in New York on Long Island, one of my responsibilities was to monitor the populations of rare plants. I do not recall what year it was, but it was in the 1990’s when we had a very dry summer. In July of that year, I happened across the crested yellow orchid growing in a location I had not seen in this place before along the edge of a fire road that cut through a wetlands area and crossed the Connetquot River.

This one orchid was suffering from the lack of rainfall. Its cluster of flower buds drooped over. I felt bad for the plant so I grabbed a bucket from the back of my jeep walked about 600 feet to the river, dunked the bucket into the water and carried back to the plant where I poured the water on it. Later that day, I returned to the plant to see how it was faring and it looked much better. Its leaves and flower cluster was no longer drooped. It regained strength with that bucket of water.

In the days that followed, I returned to the orchid, walked down to the river and carried back a bucket of water and poured it on the plant. In a few days it blossomed and looked like a normal yellow crested orchid.

Eventually, the rains came and the plant flowered, produced seeds and withered away until the next summer where I looked for it and to my delight, found it and a couple of other crested orchids growing around it.

This orchid grows in the eastern U.S. in moist open woodlands, fens and bogs. It is endangered in New York and Massachusetts and threatened in several other states.

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Wild Orchids Part 1

When you think of orchids, large showy blossoms of various colors seen in plant centers is what comes to mind to many people. But the wild orchids of the northeastern U.S. are smaller and tend to be a single color. Summer in the north is the time of year to find various species of wild orchids.

One such plant is the white-fringed orchid. On New York’s Long Island this plant grows in acidic sandy wet meadows, moist open woodlands and bogs. It grows to about 12 inches tall and has a cluster of exquisite white blossoms, each blossom is about a half inch long. Butterflies, moths and bees are its pollinators.

Though small, this is a beautiful orchid found in the eastern U.S.

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The Soap Bush!

When I worked in state parks in New York, I frequently conducted guided tours of parklands to school, scouts and the general public. One of the shrubs I featured in the early summer was sweet pepperbush when this plant bloomed. I tore off a flower and demonstrated how it became an abrasive soap to wash you hands with. With a little water from the nearby stream and the flower, I rubbed the concoction between the palms of my hands and like magic, it foamed into a soapy fluid that cleansed my hands.

I always found this shrub growing along the edge of the wetlands just out of reach of the floodwaters. Its prolific fragrant blooms attract many species of bees including bumblebees and honey bees. It is a shrub that thrives in the eastern U.S. from Texas to Maine and it is often planted in native gardens.

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The Fragrant Berry

When I grew up on Long Island and visited the sea shore, I always enjoyed the fragrance of the native northern bayberry. Breaking off a leaf and crushing it in your fingers releases the bayberry scent often used in candles today. Later in the summer, the flowers turn into fruit that are green at first, then turn gray as the winter approaches.

The bayberry is adapted thrive in the salty marine environment. Everything about this plant is waxy – its leaves, its twigs, its berries. The waxy coating protects the plant from salt spray and also reduces the loss of moisture to the environment from transpiration.

Even with the waxy coatings, there is one bird that depends on the shrub’s berries. The yellow-rumped warbler eats insects during the summer, but in the winter it changes its diet to seeds – juniper berries, poison ivy berries and bay berries. It is able to digest the waxy coatings of the bayberries.

The early settlers named this plant because it grows by America’s bays and produces berries. The colonists made bayberry candles, but it was a laborious process to produce a single candle so the candles were burned just for special times such as Christmas.

This plant grows along the mid-Atlantic coast in the interdunal swales and on Long Island can be found inland in the sandy pine barrens. Check it out.

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