The word “orchid” evokes visions of far away jungles and exotic discoveries; the prize of the botanist, found only in distant lands or tucked away in affluent greenhouses. While not totally incorrect, this idea of these mysterious flowers hides the whole truth: these flowers are found in nearly every habitat on the globe, with some being found even above the Arctic Circle. With a keen eye, we can find them in the hills and hollers of the Old Dominion.

Now is the perfect time to step into the woods and see these wonderful partnerships. By watching for a few key factors, you may find that these woodland jewels are closer at hand than you might think.

Showy Orchid (Galearis spectabilis)

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This charming bloom features a bright white labellum (the large central petal unique to orchids), hooded with brilliant violet petals. While out on a walk, look out for the thick, waxy basal leaves that emerge before the flowers. These orchids bloom from now until the end of June, so any basal leaves without flowers may be only a short while away from blooming. 

Downy Rattlesnake Plantain (Goodyera pubescens)

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The most common orchid in North America, downy rattlesnake plantain is eye catching not for its relatively small blooms, but its basal rosette, or the ring of uniquely variegated (multi-colored) leaves around the base of the stem. It is this variegation that earns this orchid its name: many consider this striping similar to the scaling of a rattlesnake. Look for this flower on well-drained forest slopes beneath oak trees. This time of year only the basal rosette has emerged from the soil; expect a tall stem crested with small white blooms to come midsummer. 

Adam and Eve (Aplectrum hyemale)

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This tall orchid also goes by a far less romantic moniker: Putty root, which refers to the gummy fluid that can be extracted from its roots. When not in bloom, this orchid can be distinguished by its basal leaf’s pinstripe variegation. Only blooming for a few more weeks, seek out this flower in damp soil near creek beds and steep terrain. 

Pink Lady’s Slipper (Cypripedium acaule)

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The grandest of our native orchids, lady’s slipper can also be referred to as moccasin flower; both of these common names refer to the resemblance of the bloom’s labellum to a shoe. This large, pouch-like labellum was designed to trap bees, who bumble around the pouch’s interior before escaping through a narrow exit. These blooms range from pink to white, with its close cousin, yellow lady’s slipper, being present in the Commonwealth as well. Lady’s slippers are more common than one might think: seek them out in rocky slopes in mixed pine and hardwood forests, or semi-open forest spaces with acidic soils. They bloom from May to July, with some variation; some populations may be just beginning to flower, while others may be past prime. 

The mystique of the orchid family comes from the incredibly picky requirements of each individual species. Demands for ideal climate, soil composition, water level, and light exposure make orchids famously difficult to cultivate. The incredible specificity of these demands leads some biologists to consider orchids as indicator species — organisms whose presence suggest a healthy ecosystem.

The most unique demand of the orchid is not sun or soil, however, but an invisible partnership. Orchids almost universally thrive beneath the shade of trees, but they don’t do it alone: a microscopic partnership happens in the plant’s roots. In order to live in the low-light conditions beneath trees, orchids team up with a fungus within the soil. These two organisms work together: the fungus helps the orchid germinate and provides the plants with nutrients through the roots, and in return the orchid feeds the fungus with fruits of its photosynthesis.

Botanists refer to this fungal alliance as a “mycorrhiza.” Every orchid participates in this partnership, with many orchids only partnering with a specific type of fungus. As you discover these woodland treasures within the forests of Virginia, keep in mind the factors at play required for these flowers to thrive. Each blossom is a miracle of nature, nestled in delicate balance within the threads of the tapestry of life.



 

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