In Search of Orchids

May 28 and 29, 2021
Author: Phyllis Root
Photographer: Kelly Povo

Some trips are full of surprises.  Some are focused on specific goals.  But even the goal-directed trips can surprise us.

Memorial Day weekend has become a time when we head north searching for wildflowers.  Last year in the time of covid we didn’t go, so this year we were doubly eager to see what might be blooming.  We know that we can’t make a date with wildflowers, and this year’s timing has seemed early for some flowers, late for others.  But we drove north in hope of seeing some of the flowers on our wish list and visiting places we love.

Our first stop, an hour from the cities, was to look for putty-root orchid blooming.  Last fall, thanks to directions from a helpful friend, we’d seen putty-root’s distinctive crinkled leaves, blue-green against the fallen deciduous leaves of a forest. Putty-root die off in the winter, but knowing where we’d seen them gave us hope that we could find the flowers blooming.

A deciduous woods in late spring is not the same woods as it was in late fall.  Where sunlight fell through bare branches in November, now the leafed-in trees let in much less light, and we understood why ephemerals hurry to gather sunshine while they can. We followed the path to where we remembered seeing the orchid’s leaves, peering at the forest floor as we went for what we imagined was a diminutive orchid. Nodding trilliums bloomed, bloodroot leaves stood up, but although we’d seen quite a few putty-root leaves in the fall, we couldn’t seem to find any flowers. 

Then there they were, right in front of us, two putty-root orchids at least eighteen inches tall, their yellowish flowers tipped with purple. In the dark woods they stood up in all their slender glory, and we were grateful to be able to see them blooming.

Next stop: Itasca State Park, where we had read about a location for spotted coralroot. As we drove through the park we stopped again and again along the roadside to look at small yellow lady’s-slipper, large yellow lady’s-slipper, and large-flowered trillium. When we finally came to the trail where we hoped to find the spotted coralroot we hiked past Canada mayflower, wood anemone, and more blooming starflowers than we’d ever seen before.  The only spotted coralroot we could find was a previous year’s flower gone to seed. According to one source coralroot lives most of its life underground and flowers only when conditions are optimal.  Either we had come too early, or this was a non-optimal year, but now we knew where to look on future visits.

From Itasca State Park it’s only a few minute’s drive to Iron Springs Scientific and Natural Area (SNA), one of our all-time favorite places. Here we had GPS coordinates for striped coralroot, the show-stopper of coralroot orchids, and we hoped to catch it blooming. Here, too, though, the coralroot must have stayed underground waiting for optimal conditions to bloom in peppermint-striped splendor.   What we did see blooming:  abundant naked miterwort, marsh marigold, heart-leaved twayblade, three-leaf false Solomon’s seal, large-flowered bellwort, three-leaf goldthread, buckbean, starry false Solomon’s seal, wild sarsaparilla, Labrador tea, and early coralroot.  Many stemless lady’s-slippers from creamy pale buds to deep pink blossoms nodded gracefully, the air smelled fresh and piney, the ground along the trail squished under our feet, and a sweet breeze kept any bugs at bay.  

The next morning dawned with a sky striped coral against pale blue. Lake Bemidji State Boardwalk is another one of our favorite places. From the boardwalk you can see a hundred different plants, and signs along the way help to identify which ones are which.  The walk to reach the boardwalk was green with new leaves on the trees, and the lacy balls of wild sarsaparilla bloomed along with starflower and a few bright gaywings, which used to fool us into thinking they might be orchids.    

Eight different kinds of orchid bloom along the boardwalk at various times, and this morning we were lucky to see several stemless lady’s-slipper just coming into bloom and a single bright magenta dragon’s mouth blooming back behind a tree.  Purple pitcher plants with new tiny pitchers growing up between the older ones made rosettes on the mossy surface of the bog.  Several purple pitcher plants raised long flower stalks with ball-shaped buds at the tops that will open into bright pinwheel-shaped flowers.  

The air was cool, 45 degrees according to a thermometer at the end of the boardwalk that registered both air temperature and also water temperature down below the surface of the bog.  This morning the difference between air and bog water was a mere twelve degrees, but on hotter days the difference can be much greater.  In the cold acidic watery world of bogs the plants we were seeing, from bog rosemary to Labrador tea to tamarack trees, are hardy, tough survivors.  

The old-growth trees at the Lost Forty SNA, our next stop, are survivors, too.  Incorrectly surveyed as a lake in the cadastral survey that marked out our country into townships and sections, the area was overlooked by timber companies who had no interest in what appeared on maps to be water.  Ignored and overlooked, these trees kept growing until a re-survey in 1960 corrected the error.  Now the forest is protected, and a walk among the tall, tall pines is like a walk back in time.

Winds swayed the treetops high overhead as we searched for striped coral-root, but here, too, it appeared that coralroot might be taking a pass on appearing above ground this year. We did see early coralroot, starflower, bluebead lily, bunchberry, gaywings, and rose twisted-stalk, along with a new-to-us orchid already in bud with two large round basal leaves.  A consult with orchid books narrowed possibilities to two: either a hooker’s orchid or a large round-leaved orchid.  Since the books informed us that the large round-leaved orchid bloomed in July and August while the hooker’s orchid bloomed in June and July, we tentatively named it as a hooker’s orchid.  We’ll come back in a few weeks to see it blooming, but either way we’ve added a new orchid to our list of orchids we’ve seen.

The trip began with orchids and ended with orchids.  In between, we saw flowers we’d hoped to see and flowers that surprised us, either by blooming or by not yet blooming. One of the joys of wildflower chasing—we never know for sure what we’ll see.  But we know that, whatever we find (or don’t find), wildflower chasing fills up our hearts.

Author: Phyllis Root and Kelly Povo,

Phyllis Root is the author of fifty books for children and has won numerous awards. Kelly Povo, a professional photographer for over thirty years, has exhibited in galleries and art shows across the country. She and Phyllis Root have collaborated on several books. This is their first book on Minnesota's Native Wildflowers.

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