‘Tis the season. I am getting beautiful pictures sent to my email and phone. The orchids are blooming! Friends share their finds with me regularly and each one excites me. These are not the run-of-the-mill tropical orchids you can now find in row after row at the big box stores. Though they are lovely in their own test-tube-propagated way. These are the wild, native, I-can’t-believe-I-just-found-an-orchid, orchids that make even the most grueling, mosquito ridden, tick infested, poison ivy covered hike worth the effort. May through October, I hike with one eye on the trail and one eye in the woods looking for bright spots of color that would indicate an orchid.
I heard rumors of their existence.
Sure, as a horticulture student, I learned there were wild orchids. But I had never seen one. I really couldn’t even imagine one. My first introduction to the surprise and magic of native orchids was hammock-camping in Otter River State Forest in Massachusetts. My, then, boyfriend and I had gotten in a little late and set our hammocks up by the light of our headlamps. We were exhausted and fell into our hammocks, sleeping before our heads hit the pillows. As the sun rose through the morning mist I sat up to take in our surroundings. Pine trees above, a soft carpet of pine needles below. And what is that?! A small pink blob among the pine needles. And another, and another. We had set our hammocks up in a bed of Pink Lady Slippers (Cypripedium acaule). We were set up in a designated campsite, we just happened to pick the best.campsite.EVER! I mean there was one blooming right under my hammock. In all of our hikes, we had never seen wild Lady Slippers, let alone the hundreds we were seeing as we wandered the grounds of this state forest. I must have a thousand pictures, I took a picture of each one I found. This place proved so special to us, a few years later we decided to get married nearby, timing our wedding with the blooming of the lady slippers, and encouraging our guests to camp. We continue to go back regularly on our anniversary and still get excited when we see the wild Pink Lady Slippers.
Grow them at home.
As enchanted as we were with these orchids, we never once thought to dig one up and bring it home with us, for many reasons. Of course, it should go without saying (but I am going to say it anyway!) that you shouldn’t collect plants from the wild. They exist as part of a habitat and are essential to the well being of the natural systems in the area. Bugs, birds, mammals, and all life depends on the diversity of species in an area. Unlike the easy-care orchids you can purchase in the big box stores, most of our native orchids have special requirements to survive and thrive. Studies have shown that the orchids create a symbiotic relationship with fungus in the soil. If that fungus isn’t present in your soils, the orchids will not grow there. Even if you dig a plant from the wild with the soil (please don’t do this, unless you are rescuing a population from imminent destruction due to development and the like – even then, alert your local conservation organization of the problem and leave it to the experts.) chances are the orchid will not survive, because something essential to the growth of the plant was left behind at the original location. Think of baking a cake, if you leave out the baking powder, the cake will not rise, if you leave out the sugar, the cake will not taste as it should. Not a baker? Think of the internal combustion engine. The engine operates only if there is the exact ratio of air to fuel. If one of these is missing, or available in the wrong concentration, too much or too little, the engine will not run. Similarly, without the correct soil components, orchids will not survive. You should also be cautious purchasing native orchids. Some orchids do better than others in cultivated situations. The Yellow Ladyslipper (Cypripedium parviflorum) is relatively easy to grow, especially compared to the Pink Lady Slipper. You may be able to find this for sale and it may grow just fine in your landscape. Another beginner native orchid, suitable for many home landscape situations, is Nodding Lady’s Tresses (Spiranthes cernua). When you see these plants for sale and consider purchasing them, be sure you know they were grown from seed and not harvested from the wild as plants. Because of their beauty and rarity, native orchids are collected to the point of near extinction, you do not want to support this problem by purchasing wild-collected plant material.
Did you know Pennsylvania boasts 53 different orchid species? The tiny state of New Jersey has 60. (Find out about the native orchids living in your state: Enter family name Orchidaceae, then select your state.) If you know there are wild orchids in your vicinity, rather than dig them up and transplanting them to your yard, you can try to create the community in which they will thrive. Learn what plants are associated with the orchids you would like to grow and start to introduce those combinations into your landscape. Eventually, who knows, some seeds on the wind will settle in your plant community and take root. Pink Lady Slippers are found in open pine forests in acidic soils, Yellow Lady Slippers can be found in moist rocky woods. The Showy Orchis (Galearis spectabilis) thrives in rich deciduous forests. The Grass-pink (Calopogon tuberosus) can be found in damp meadows and bogs. All of these can be found Maine to Georgia and west to the Mississippi River, and some, like the Yellow Lady Slipper, have a range throughout the US.
Find your own wild orchids.
Learning what type of community wild orchids thrive in will also help you find them in nature. Knowing what larger plants and conditions to look for will guide you to the exciting experience of finding an orchid in the wild. In fact, this may be the only way you find out about wild orchids around. People in the know tend to be tight lipped about wild orchid locations. Too often, once a population has been discovered, people go back to visit only to find the orchids are gone. Frequently they have been removed to the backyard of some collector only to die a slow death over the next couple of years eliminating the population for good. In some states this has led to a lack of communication between state agencies and conservation organizations. Each worried the other will reveal the location of these precious botanicals leading to the demise of the species. In the end, the orchids still continue to decline for a variety of reasons (habitat loss, herbivory…) and the lack of communication and collaboration isn’t really helping anything at all. Thank goodness the Smithsonian and the US Botanic Garden have started the North American Orchid Conservation Center dedicated to propagating and restoring native orchids through collaboration! This is also the reason why initiatives such as the Brooklyn Botanic Gardens’ Metropolitan Flora Project is so vital. (Darn soapbox, always ends up under my feet somehow…).
Want to experience native orchids without as many mosquitos, poison ivy and ticks? Check out the native plant displays at our many public gardens. Right now Yellow Lady Slippers are in full bloom in the New York Botanical Garden’s Native Plant Garden. Garden in the Woods in MA has a tremendous collection as well. The Mt. Cuba Center has wild orchids on display in DE. Where do you find orchids?
So get out on the trails, look for plant communities that will support a native orchid and keep your eyes peeled. There are orchids native to every state, so you can find them wherever you are. Create a welcoming environment for orchids in your own yard, there are native orchids for almost every type of habitat. Try hammock-camping – you never know what you will wake up to find!
Public Service Announcement 1.
Shockingly, not all people get excited about orchids. Upon showing my friend a picture of the blooming pink Lady Slipper orchids that inspired our wedding location she said, in all seriousness, “I just don’t understand why you would get married around a whole bunch of testicle flowers.” Sigh…
Public Service Announcement 2.
You never know what you will wake up to while hammock camping. One time, while I was sleeping, a chipmunk climbed up the tree and right into my hammock and over me, I threw it out of the hammock with my blanket and a shriek.