Even More Orchids

July 2 & 3, 2021

Author: Phyllis Root
Photographer: Kelly Povo

Minnesota’s orchid season always feels brief to us.  Many orchids bloom for only a short time, deep in wooded swamps or bogs in the northern half of the state, and some orchids (I’m talking about you, bog adder’s-mouth) are so small that we might never find them.  But we love the looking and the places we look, and we take every opportunity we can to go searching.  

Lavender streaked the sky as I drove to pick up Kelly at 5 a.m. and we set off to look for even more orchids before the orchid season is over.  We were headed for Iron Springs Bog Scientific and Natural Area (SNA) , one of our favorites places, but our first stop was Roscoe Prairie SNA, a native prairie remnant, to look for showy milkweed.  Last year around the fourth of July we had tentatively identified two plants at Roscoe Prairie as showy milkweed, and we wanted to verify that identification.  

We arrived at the prairie around seven a.m. Sunlight silvered the leaves of leadplant, and birdsong sweetened the air.  This was our first high summer prairie visit of the year, and we walked among leadplant’s purple flowers, black-eyed Susan, mountain death camas, purple prairie clover, white prairie clover, blazing star in bud, wood lily—a whole cast of native prairie flowers. The smell of Virginia mountain mint broke out from under our feet in places as we walked.  Whenever we came to a milkweed blooming we peered closely at the flowers.  Were these “horns” on the blossoms pointed and longer than on other milkweed?  Did the leaves feel smooth on top and hairy underneath? Were the plants short, only two to three feet tall? We weren’t sure, but we thought we could confirm a couple of plants as showy.  Leaving the prairie behind us, we drove on north.  Along Highway 71 some milkweed caught Kelly’s eye, and two u-turns later we pulled up beside milkweed whose flowers had long pointed “horns,” leaves that were shiny on top and hairy underneath, and were only about two feet tall.  Defintiely showy milkweed.  Looking at the flowers, we could tell that the ones we had seen earlier at Roscoe Prairie were definitely not showy milkweed.  Still, we were glad for our first native prairie morning of the year.

Another quick stop along the way revealed western spotted coralroot, striped coralroot gone to seed, ram’s-head lady’s-slipper gone to seed, round-leaved orchid gone to seed, and lesser rattlesnake-plantain, its distinctive leaves so small and buried in the moss that we only spied it because of the budding flower stalks.

The main destination of the day, Iron Springs Bog never disappoints, and we were barely out of the car before we saw our first northern green bog-orchid.  Farther down the road we came across a long-bracted orchid still in bloom with tiny flowers whose long lower lips, like tongues, must give the orchid its common name of frog orchid. Showy lady’s-slipper bloomed in the low area across the road, some flowers just opening, many already past their prime.  We followed a path under the trees in a section of the SNA we hadn’t yet explored and found ourselves in utterly orchid territory.  

Our first find was tiny, a pale green orchid with a single leaf whose identity we weren’t sure of.  Nearby were gone-to-seed stemless lady’s-slippers and gone-to-seed early coralroot.  A tiny green adder’s-mouth caught our eye, then a orchid we thought might be bluntleaved rein-orchid and another we thought might be a small green wood-orchid. Crossing to the other side of the road we found tall green bog-orchid blooming robustly.

Across the bridge in another section of the SNA we found more showy lady’s-slipper, more tall green bog-orchid along with northern green bog-orchid (thanks to a friend we can now tell these two apart), and heart-leaved twayblade.  By the end of the day we counted up fourteen different orchids, including two we think are new for us to see here in Minnesota.  

It’s a good day when we find an orchid, much less fourteen of them.  We’ll verify our identifications of the ones we’re unsure of, and we’ll keep searching for the ones we have yet to see (still talking about you, bog adder’s-mouth). We love the searching as much as the finding, and we can’t think of a better place to spend a wildflower-chasing day than in a bog or a forested swamp (with good, effective bug spray). 

Orchids, Orchids, Orchids

June 13, 2021

Author: Phyllis Root
Photographer: Kelly Povo

We love Minnesota’s Scientific and Natural Areas (SNAs), but we’re not the only state to set aside wilder places.  Wisconsin also has SNAs (Wisconsin calls them State Natural Areas), a whopping 687 of them.  Many of these SNAs, like Minnesota’s, provide “some of the last refuges for rare plants and animals,” according to the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.

On Sunday we were lucky enough to wade and wander in one of these Wisconsin SNAs searching for some of those rare flowers in a forested swamp surrounding a small bog lake.  And we were even luckier to go with a fellow wildflower lover who knows his way around this swamp.  

Last week when we saw eight orchids in one day we thought we had achieved an all-time personal best.  But records are made to be broken, and around the boggy lake and under cedar, tamarack, and spruce trees we saw a total of twelve orchid species.  Not all were blooming but many were, and even seeing the ones not yet in bloom  or on their way to seed is always a thrill.

The day was warm and bright with enough cool breezes to keep the sweat down.  No bugs harassed us, although we saw many butterflies and dragonflies.  The usual bog suspects were blooming:  three-leaved false Solomon’s seal, Labrador tea, cotton grass (at least two kinds), bog rosemary, bog laurel, small cranberry, purple pitcher plant. We looked, photographed, recorded, and admired them. 

It wasn’t long before we saw our first stemless lady’s-slipper, then the yellow-green stems and flowers of early coral root under the trees. Along the edge of the lake we found delicate rose pogonia, vivid dragon’s mouth, and bright grass pink blooming.  The spires of white bog orchid became the first new-to-us orchid of the day. Looking closely at the flowers on a white bog orchid, I thought I saw one of the flowers move. It turned out to be a small white crab spider which, our friend told us, hung out in the orchid waiting to catch an unwary pollinator for a meal. More white bog orchids, rose pogonia, grass pink, and dragon’s mouth grew scattered all along the edge of the lake.

Small streams meandered through the moss, and we waded across them and into the forested part of the swamp. Here we found yellow lady’s slipper, showy lady’s-slipper, blunt-leaved orchid  in bud, heart-leaved twayblade past its prime, small round-leaved orchid, and  northern green bog orchid just opening its buds.  

We are trying hard to use scientific names for at least some of the orchids when we can, since folks who use scientific nomenclature tend to look oddly at us when we say, “You know, the little polka-dotted orchid.”  We were especially glad to get tips on how to tell apart northern green-bog orchid (Platanthera aquilonis) and its very close relation tall green bog-orchid (Platanthera huronensis), since even the guidebooks confess that these two species are easy to confuse. 

The white bog orchid, blunt-leaved, and northern green bog-orchid are all new to us, and we hope to see them back in Minnesota to add to our list of Minnesota orchids we’ve seen (we are approaching 40 out of 49).

It’s hard to imagine a day richer in orchids (although that’s what we said last week), and we drove home filled up with bog trotting, orchid spotting, and gratitude to the friend who shared this richness of orchids and this quietly amazing place. 

An Eight-Orchid Day

June 5, 2021

Author: Phyllis Root
Photographer: Kelly Povo

Some orchids have a vivid presence such as showy lady’s-slipper or stemless lady’s-slipper.  Some are small and demure, like early coralroot.  And some are persnickety about showing their colors above ground, such as striped coralroot which may bloom above ground one year and then not reappear in the same location for several succeeding years.  We’ve been on a quest to see all of the 49 orchids in Welby Smith’s book Native Orchids of Minnesota, and last Saturday we added two more to our list bringing our total of orchids seen to 36.  

A week earlier we’d seen a tightly budded flower stalk that had been identified as a Hooker’s orchid, and now we hoped to see a Hooker’s orchid with open flowers. On a day when the temperature was rising toward 100 degrees in the Twin Cities and none too cool where we were headed, we drove back up north, hoping to find a blooming Hooker’s orchid at Pennington Bog Scientific and Natural Area (SNA) or at a site nearby.   Our other goal: to find striped coralroot, an orchid I’d seen years ago but that Kelly had yet to see and photograph.  

Pennington Bog SNA, composed mostly of northern cedar swamp, lists at least 14 different kinds of orchid growing there, including calypso, dragon’s mouth, striped coralroot, early coralroot, heart-leaved twayblade, and several kinds of lady’s-slipper. A permit to visit is needed to help protect this fragile habitat, and we made sure to get our permit from the Department of Natural Resources before heading north. 

Another helpful wildflower searcher had told us about an area not too far from Pennington Bog where ram’s head lady’s-slipper and Hooker’s orchid grow, so we stopped there first. Tiger swallowtails flitted under the trees as we searched and found early coralroot and small yellow lady’s-slipper along with several ram’s head lady’s-slipper orchids, most of them past their blooming prime but a few still looking fresh.

Under a stand of cedars close by the ram’s head lady’s-slipper we spied an unfamiliar orchid with two wide basal leaves, its lovely white spurred flowers opening along the stalk. Yet another new to us orchid! Kelly took photographs, and we checked our pocket orchid guide,  narrowing the choices to two: blunt-leaved orchid or Hooker’s orchid.  Then we realized we’d had the same discussion last week about the orchid we’d seen in bud at the Lost Forty SNA. Of the two choices, only Hooker’s orchid blossomed in June which meant we must be now be looking (again) at a Hooker’s orchid, this time in bloom instead of in bud. Celebration ensued. 

We journeyed on to Pennington Bog SNA and had barely entered into the shaded light under the cedar trees when we spied striped coralroot. In my memory the striped coralroot I’d seen before had glowed deep pinkish red, and my memory turned out to be true.  Singly and in bunches, the orchids stood out like stalks of peppermint candy, each one fresher and more beautiful than the last.  

We wandered farther into the SNA, treading carefully on the mossy ground, coming across early coralroot, small yellow lady’s-slipper, a scattering of heart-leaved twayblade, and small round-leaved orchid just coming into polka-dotted bloom.  The most unexpected find of the day:  calypso orchid still blooming. We thought we’d come too late to see these tiny, exquisite orchids, and yet here they were, bright spots of color against the moss. Several calypso had gone to seed (or close to it), but a few were fresh and sweet. When we added up the day’s tally of orchids, we had seen eight orchids in all—a personal best.  

The day’s weather had been unusually hot, sweat dripping off of us as we searched.  We ended the day with a welcome swim in Blue Lake followed by an evening paddle to the wetland end of the lake tucked behind a sand bar. Round-leaved sundew grew in patches of moss, beavers worked busily near their lodge, and bladderwort, one of Minnesota’s carnivorous plants, bloomed its small yellow flowers. Maybe someday this wetland tucked behind a sandbar will slowly fill in as lakes do, becoming more of a bog.

Who knows? Maybe some day another wildflower chaser or two will come here in search of orchids that will have found a home in the moss. If so, we wish them well.

We wish them an eight-orchid day.

Thanks, Tony, for your help with a few of these spectacular finds!