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The Mysteries of Maryland's Orchids - May 27, 2018

As I was walking through a forest in Talbot county, I stumbled across a brilliant bloom on the forest floor that I had never seen before. Two round, waxy leaves set the base for a tall green spire, studded ornately with two stunning, showy blooms of rich purple and white; little lilac hoods with rounded snowy beards underneath.

This was my first experience with Galearis spectabilis, a gossamer spectacle aptly known as the Showy Orchid. Many view the orchid as a purely tropical flower, but the orchid family is one of the largest plant families on earth, boasting over 30,000 species and colonizing almost every climate.

While the Showy Orchid I chanced upon is fairly common and widespread throughout the east coast of the United States, it is rarely glimpsed by the vast majority of Maryland residents; a trait shared by the 50-odd species of native orchid that inhabit our state’s forests, wetlands, and grasslands.

This is in part the fault of the orchids themselves. Something about the orchid is wonderfully enigmatic, enchanting, and oddly elusive. The plants are customarily small, often no more than a few inches tall, and their flowers usually sprout from a pair of leaves, one leaf, or no leaves at all. Like magic, they suddenly appear in late spring, dotting the forest floor with alluring color for a few weeks, and then vanishing just as quickly.

This disappearing act is magnified by the biology of our temperate species; after their ephemeral display the nondescript plants fade back into obscurity among the leaf litter, then disappear altogether, dying back in the fall until the next spring thaw. It seems almost as if the orchid doesn’t want to be found, playing coy for all but the luckiest observers.

Perhaps it is this coquettish quality, combined with the orchid’s stunning beauty, that has captivated and excited generations of naturalists, collectors, adventurers, and thieves. In the 1800’s fanatical orchid collection, deemed “Orchidelirium” bewitched the Victorian rich, and many an orchid hunter suffered a gruesome death in the search for exotic flowers to sell. Charles Darwin was so entranced by the orchid that the first book he wrote after “Origin of Species” was “Fertilisation of Orchids”. In 1998, Susan Orlean released the New York Times bestseller “The Orchid Thief”, which documented the passions and poachings of the modern orchid obsessed. Whatever the reason, orchids have wooed many with their seductive charm. 

With common names like Showy Lady’s Slipper and Slender Ladies’ Tresses, the orchid has always managed to evoke feelings of provocative femininity. With a name like orchid, from the Latin orchis, meaning testicle (a reference to the paired roots of many species), there’s plenty of masculinity to go around too.

Sex sells, and orchids know this as well as anyone.

The orchid’s beautiful flowers are rife with enticing deception and desire, the Victoria Secret billboards of the plant kingdom. Really, all this splendor is a tantalizing trap for smitten bees. Lured in by the bright colors and irresistible shapes of the orchid’s flowers, the bees find themselves beguiled; the showiest orchids, like the Lady’s Slippers and the Dragon’s Mouth, offer no nectar reward for their hard-working pollinators. Instead, pollen is slapped on the bee’s back, and the hungry bee is sent on its way. Because of this, these species of orchid rely on young, inexperienced bees emerging in early spring to pollinate their flowers. Older bees have wised up to the guiles of these flowers and rarely make the same mistake twice. 

The orchid life cycle is full of tricks: orchid seeds are fertilized by cheated bees, and the seeds are germinated by cheated fungi. Orchid seeds are some of the smallest in the world, and as such they lack food reserves for growth of the new plant. Instead, orchids freeload off the branched mycelium of soil fungi, stealing water and nutrients from them and offering little in return. Only a year or more after germination do the plants begin to repay their fungal benefactors, finally photosynthesizing on their own. Some orchids, like the Maryland native Spring Coralroot (Corallorhiza wisteriana) never produce their own food and spend their entire lives in this duplicitous deal. Orchids are exceedingly picky too, favoring very specific types of fungi to seduce and swindle.

However, all this manipulation and charm means that orchids are highly reliant on a web of other species for their own survival. As such, orchids are sensitive indicators of ecological health, and many species are declining drastically in the state of Maryland. 33 of the 51 orchid species in the state are rare, threatened, or endangered, and nine have performed the greatest disappearing act of all: they are considered locally extinct in places where they once thrived. Deforestation, changing soil chemistry, poaching of rare specimens, and intensive deer browsing have decimated these alluring flowers across the state. Some, like the Small Whorled Pogonia (Isotria medeoloides) and Heartleaf Twayblade (Neottia cordata) haven’t been seen in the state for over eighty years.

If you’ve never seen an orchid in Maryland, I urge you to take a hike. Spotting one of these captivating flowers will always be an incredible experience, and while they may be selfish and vain (as far as flowers go), these qualities have resulted in some of the most exquisite blooms on planet earth. If you’re lucky, you will be rewarded with a truly magical experience, and you might just rediscover one of those lost species. If the orchids are lucky, you’ll step away as one more wooed patron willing to protect these fragile, secret beauties.

 

Simons is a Seasonal Scientist with the Maryland Coastal Bays Program



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