The Last Orchid

August 19, 2022

Author: Phyllis Root
Photographer: Kelly Povo

Native Orchids of Minnesota by Welby Smith lists 48 orchids native to Minnesota (plus one that grows wild but was brought over from Europe).  At some point in our wildflower chasing, we realized we were seeing many of those orchids, so we made it a goal to see all 48 native orchids blooming in Minnesota. 

Only one problem (well, actually three):  
the most recent specimen of Oklahoma grass-pink was documented in 1884; 
only one record of broad-leaved twayblade exists from 1924;
the two recorded specimens of southern slender ladies’-tresses are from 1889.

We revised our list of orchids we might reasonably see to 45, and slowly our list grew shorter until only two orchids remained, tall white bog orchid, which we’d seen in June 2021 blooming in a swamp in Wisconsin, and hooded ladies’-tresses, which eluded us.  We’d seen a posting of hooded ladies’-tresses in that same Wisconsin swamp, so when our Minnesota searches turned up empty, we headed across the river to Wisconsin on a moist sort of morning, cool and overcast with the promise of rain.  On our last visit we’d counted 12 different kinds of orchids at this site. Now in mid-August the only evidence of those previous orchids was a plethora of stemless lady’s-slipper leaves.  

Even without orchids, the bog was beautiful.  Under the trees green moss grew deep, while out in the open bog rosemary’s gray-green leaves stood out against rich red moss, dotted in places with large shiny ripening cranberries.  Purple pitcher plants nestled in the moss, their pinwheel flowers poking up as we made our way toward the north end of the small lake and the GPS coordinates where the hooded ladies’-tresses had been seen.

We were almost to where the orchid was said to be when we came to a bunch of braided water trails.  We’d crossed these water trails last year, but this year they were wider, deeper, and eager to suck up our boots when we took a tentative step. But we are intrepid, and by carefully helping each other leap across the streams (I use the word “leap” loosely, “stagger over” is a better description) we made it to more solid ground.

And there on the other side of the water trails we found the hooded ladies’-tresses, blossoms white against the green. Kelly took pictures while I counted at least 15 hooded ladies’-tresses plants in various stages of bloom. We felt rich in orchids. 

We still want to see hooded ladies’-tresses and tall white bog orchid blooming in Minnesota where they also grow.  But for now we celebrated actually seeing all the seeable orchids native to Minnesota blooming somewhere.  (And if anyone ever discovers time travel, we might just go back to the 1880s and 1920s to look for those last three orchids that once grew in Minnesota.)

As we hopped from hummock to hummock on our way back toward the car, we wondered why so many of the orchids in this swamp grew only at the far end of the lake.  A little internet research provided a possible answer: turns out the bog itself varies in alkalinity, with the north end more alkaline while the south end is more acidic.  Fourteen species of orchids are said to grow at this site, and by our count we had just seen the thirteenth.  

But that’s numbers and checklists and bean-counting. What really matters is the memory of those white spires of hooded ladies’-tresses in bloom, the deep greens and reds of the sphagnum moss, and the silence of a bog on a cloudy day. Whether or not we ever find that fourteenth orchid that grows here, we will be back to this magical place, happily hummock-hopping.

Author: kellypovo

Kelly Povo, a professional photographer for over thirty years, has exhibited in galleries and art shows across the country. Her cards, gift books, and calendars have been sold internationally. She and Phyllis Root have collaborated on several books. This is her first book on Minnesota's Native Wildflowers.

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