August 5, 2018
For years we’ve been convinced that if downy rattlesnake plantain orchid really does bloom (and not just go directly from bud to seed pod), it must do so between 12 a.m. and 12:03 a.m. on a single night in alternate leap years. Maybe.
A few summers ago, determined to catch it flowering, we made frequent trips north to Falls Creek Scientific and Natural Area where we’d seen the distinctive leaves of this orchid. Our searches went something like this:
Then we saw a post online with an actual photo of downy rattlesnake plantain at a different location blooming. Sure, we thought, it might bloom there, but the ones we’ve been watching don’t bloom. Ever. But we live in hope, and it was a lovely day for a walk in the woods, so we headed north to Falls Creek.
Rain had fallen the night before, but the sun was out, and the light fell green through the trees, with pockets of sun piercing the canopy. Even the air smelled green and fresh. As we hiked, we noted the leaves of many spring flowers—starflower, bloodroot, Solomon’s seal, Jack-in-the-pulpit, Canadian wild ginger– and promised ourselves to come back in the spring. As we hiked farther from where we had parked the traffic noise fell away, and we heard the sweet sound of the creek below us, where mist rose from the water like a mystical, magical morning of another world.
And there, along the path, we saw what we had thought might be a botanical myth: downy rattlesnake plantain in full bloom, a single bright spike with small white flowers along its length. As we continued down the path, we saw another, and another, and another. Indian pipe, a plant with no chlorophyll of its own, shone white on the forest floor.
South of Falls Creek, we stopped at Afton State Park for a walk in the restored prairie, where compass plant, wild bergamot, prairie ironweed, coneflower, blue vervain, milkweed, spotted Joe-pye weed, rattlesnake master, stiff goldenrod, prairie onion, and rough blazing star were in full boom. Yellow seeds on Indian grass quivered in the breeze like rows of tiny flags flying. And there, on a wild bergamot flower, we saw an unfamiliar butterfly with a wingspan as wide as my hand. Later we learned that it was a giant swallowtail. We also read on an interpretive sign the best definition we’ve seen yet of native plants: “native plants naturally occur in the place where they evolved.”
A day filled with native flowers in forest and prairie, with lesser rattlesnake plantain orchid in bloom, and with a giant swallowtail butterfly. A good day to be out.
Phyllis Root, author
Kelly Povo, photographer