Nine-Minute Naturalist: An Ode to the Orchid

By Samuel Fuqua,

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An Ode to the Orchid

by Josh Palumbo, Forest Management Coordinator

I welcome you to The Nature Foundation at Wintergreen’s attempt to bring some nature and knowledge into your home. The Nine Minute Naturalist borrows from NPR’s lovely 90-Second Naturalist podcast. Since we all have a bit more time on our hands, the goal is to take something that is happening out in our environment and stimulate your brain for roughly nine minutes. Don’t let something as “minor” as a quarantine to keep you from learning. I hope you enjoy!


Spring has sprung and is cruising to peak wildflower season. Wintergreen is blessed with unique, beautiful plants that make the spring season a spectacle for outdoor enthusiasts. The orchid family certainly takes center stage throughout our spring and summer bloom season. This edition of the Nine Minute Naturalist will cover what makes orchids so unique and the unique orchids that call Wintergreen home.

Orchids are one of the largest plant families in the world. While a great majority call the tropics their home, North America is home to over 200 species of orchids, with Virginia being home to over 30 species of orchids. Fifty-percent of North American orchids are either threatened or endangered. Certain species of orchid have a lifespan over 100 years!

Orchids come in all shapes and sizes from less than one inch to over 8 feet in height. While their flowers are all unique, they do share interesting characteristics, one being bilateral symmetry. That means all orchid flowers can be separated into two equal parts. Another common feature of orchid life is their relationship with mycorrhizal fungi. Each orchid life stage is dependent at some level on a specific fungus. Orchids can live on the ground (terrestrial), attached to other plants (epiphytic … sometimes parasitic) or under the ground. Orchids can be monopodial which means they grow vertically from one stem or sympodial which means they grow horizontally via rhizomes.

Another interesting aspect to the orchid life cycle is the plant dependence on particular pollinators. Due to the specialization of pollination, a lack of a particular insect means a lack of dependent orchids. The Nature Foundation is in the process of setting up a collaboration to study pollinators of particular orchids found along our forest floor via camera trapping technology. Our Wintergreen forest offers the opportunity to study many varieties of the orchid family.

 

Yellow lady’s slipper

 

The most iconic example of the orchid family at Wintergreen is the lady slipper. The pink and yellow lady’s slippers are found in a variety of habitats throughout the Wintergreen forest. These large showy wildflowers bloom from May to June. The pink lady’s slipper appears magenta to whitish-pink. The yellow lady’s slipper will be a bit more uniform in color but can range from pale to bright yellow. To look for the pink’s lady slipper, spend time hiking along the Old Appalachian Trail or the Pedlars Edge Access Trail. To get a glimpse of the yellow lady’s slipper in bloom, venture along the White Oak Trail or Hemlock Springs Trail.

 

Downy rattlesnake plantain

 

A common orchid at Wintergreen that is spread throughout our forest floor is the downy rattlesnake plantain. It is an evergreen plant with broad rounded leaves similar to its namesake the broadleaf plantain. It can be identified by the broad central stripe down the middle of each leaf. In mid-summer, a flower stalk emerges consisting of tiny, delicate orchid flowers. Hike with a judicious eye anywhere at Wintergreen and this orchid can be found.

 

Purple fringe orchid

 

Wintergreen is also home to an uncommon, threatened orchid, the large purple fringed orchid. It is ranked by the Virginia Natural Heritage as an S2 plant, meaning it is imperiled in the state. This orchid is a primary reason the Crawford’s Knob Natural Area Preserve now exists. Natural Heritage, along with The Nature Foundation, holds a very restrictive easement at Wintergreen with the intention of preserving the existence of this species in Virginia. This showy orchid blooms with an inflorescence of bright purple flowers in mid-June. It is primarily a wetland species and thrives amongst the high elevation basic seepage swamp on Crawford’s Knob.

The forest floor has awakened and the time has come to get out and find Wintergreen’s most beloved flower family. Mid-May will be the peak time to find lady’s slippers but don’t forget to keep your eyes peeled throughout our summer bloom cycle to see other wonderful Wintergreen orchids.

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