Ladies’-Tresses Perplexes

August 31, 2023

Author: Phyllis Root
Photographer: Kelly Povo

We’ve been on a search for Minnesota’s five different ladies’-tresses orchids that are findable (southern slender ladies’-tresses hasn’t been seen in Minnesota in 100 years, so we’re not really looking for it here).  We were briefly ecstatic to see a “new” one listed, sphinx ladies’-tresses, until a friend told us it was really just nodding ladies’-tresses under a new name.

We’ve found nodding (or, now, sphinx) ladies’-tresses in a wet part of Blaine Preserve Scientific and Natural Area (SNA).  We’ve seen both Case’s ladies’-tresses and also northern slender ladies’-tresses on top of a huge hill of dirt dug up decades ago to get to the iron ore below.  We spotted Great Plains ladies’-tresses in vigorous bloom on a goat prairie at King’s and Queen’s Bluffs SNA. And on a roadside in Pennington County in northern Minnesota a few weeks back we saw hooded ladies’-tresses  blooming.

When flower chasing brought us north again a few weeks later we stopped by that same roadside to check on the hooded ladies’-tresses and found almost no sign of them except for a couple of plants gone to seed.  What we did see blooming were a few similar-but-not quite-the-same spiraling white orchids, and we puzzled over them.  Shaggy hooded ladies’-tresses on their way to seed?  Nodding ladies’-tresses?  Great Plains ladies’-tresses?  

It’s easy to confuse nodding and Great Plains ladies’-tresses.  We know.  We’ve done it.  The flowers look similar and bloom at overlapping times in wetter places, although Great Plains ladies’-tresses also blooms in drier, gravelly habitats.  We’ve read that Great Plains ladies’-tresses smells like almonds, but to our non-botanical noses both flowers smell pretty much the same. To complicate things, distribution maps for the two don’t show either one in Pennington county. Maps, of course, can be mistaken, but so can we.

The next day in a ditch in Clay county we saw several of the same blooming ladies’-tresses and puzzled some more.  The only clue we could find was that the blooming plants didn’t appear to have any leaves, and since Great Plains ladies’-tresses loses its leaves before blooming, we tentatively identified them as Great Plains.  (Later we found that Great Plains ladies’-tresses is listed as being in Clay county while nodding ladies’-tresses is not, which helped strengthen our identification.) Are we right?  We don’t know.  We didn’t really stress over which ladies’-tresses we saw, but they were a mystery.  In the end, finding any ladies’-tresses  blooming gracefully in places wet or dry, whether or not we know its name,  is always a delight.  

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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