Meeting the Elusive Three Birds Orchid

IMG_3214.jpg

Rare but locally abundant has to be the only proper way of describing the distribution of this peculiar little orchid. I have known about the three birds orchid (Triphora trianthophoros) for some time now. I'm generally not a jealous person but I did find myself quite envious of those who have encountered it. Even with ample herbarium records I simply could not seem to locate any individuals of this species.

The best advice for finding it that I was ever given was to not go looking for it. This secretive little plant is something you almost have to stumble upon. And stumble I did. While surveying some vegetation plots that I had combed over all summer back in 2016 I noticed something new poking up. The slender red stalks had tiny green leaves and elongated flower buds at the top. I knew instantly that this could only mean one thing - I had finally found some three birds.

DSCN0704.JPG

Both the common and scientific name hint at the fact that these plants are often seen with three flowers. This is not a rule by any means as plants can be found with as few as one flower or as many as 10. Regardless of the amount, finding them is only part of the battle. The other challenge is to catch them in bloom.

The secretive nature of this orchid has led to some interesting tips on how to get your timing right. Some say to check a known population after the first big rain of August. Another more pervasive tip claims that one must take to the forest after nighttime temperatures take a sudden dip. Despite this entertaining advice, it would seem that you just have to be in the right place at the right time.

DSCN0769.JPG

What is known about the flowering habits of the three birds orchid is that populations tend to flower in unison. The buds all develop to a certain point and stop. They will sit and wait for the right conditions (whatever they might be) to arise. Once that crucial condition is hit, they rapidly bloom en masse. This is a wonderful strategy for a flowering plant that lives tucked away on the shady forest floor.

Concealed among the forest debris, one or two flowers wouldn't get much attention. Hundreds of bright white and pink flowers, however, certainly do! Juxtaposed against the shade of the forest, these little orchids almost glow like little neon signs. Despite this mass effort, it has been found that pollination rates are usually very low. Instead, this orchid most often reproduces vegetatively by budding off tiny plantlets from the main root stock. Because of this, it is not uncommon to find literally hundreds of plants of various sizes clustered together within inches of each other. This is an impressive sight to behold.... again, if you are lucky enough to find it.

Like many of its orchid cousins, this species is no stranger to the disappearing act. Because they rely so heavily on mycorrhizal fungi for their nutrient needs, exhausted plants will often go dormant under the soil for years until they gain enough energy to produce stems, leaves, and flowers again. If you come across the three birds orchid during your travels, do yourself a favor and take some time to relish the moment. It may be a long time before you ever see them again.

Further Reading: [1] [2]

The Round Leaved Orchid

10314523_1036601796366685_3819966962734306060_n.jpg

In the northern temperate regions of North America, late June marks the beginning of what I like to call orchid season. If you're lucky you may stumble across one of these rare beauties in full bloom. Their diversity in shape and size are mainly a result of the intricate evolutionary relationships they have formed with their pollinators. I spend much of my time botanizing trying to locate and photograph these botanical curiosities and any time I get to meet a new species is a very special time indeed. 

Take the round leaved orchid (Platanthera orbiculata) for example. For years I have only known this species as two round leaves that are slightly reminiscent of the phaleanopsis orchids you see for sale in nurseries and grocery stores. The leaves can be quite large too. With their glossy appearance, they are the easiest way to locate this plant.

When conditions are right and the plants have enough stored energy they will begin to flower. Rising from the middle of the pair of leaves is a decent sized inflorescence loaded with greenish white flowers. The flowers are interesting structures. Not particularly colorful, they have a long white lip and considerable green nectar spurs. There are said to be two varieties of this species, each being characterized by the length of the nectar spur. Unlike many orchids that offer no reward to pollinators, P. orbiculata produces nectar. The flowers are pollinated by noctuid moths, which is probably why they are white in color. Whereas most lepidopteran pollinated orchid attach their pollinia to the proboscis of the butterfly or moth, P. orbiculata attaches its pollinia to the eyes of visiting moths. 

10891511_1036601783033353_3763668357415606405_n.jpg

If this isn't strange enough, the pollinia themselves have some of their own intriguing adaptations. Visiting moths take a certain amount of time to successfully access the nectar from the nectar spur. If the plant is to avoid wasting precious pollen on itself, then it must find a way to delay this process. The pollinia are the solution to this. When first attached to the eyes, the pollinia stick straight up. This keeps them away from the female parts of the plant as the moth feeds. Only after enough time has elapsed will the stalks of the pollinia begin to bend forward. At this point the moth will hopefully have moved on to the flowers of an unrelated individual. Pointing straight forward, they are now perfectly positioned to transfer pollen. 

Like all orchids, P. orbiculata relies on specialized mycorrhizal fungi for germination and survival. At the beginning of its life, P. orbiculata relies solely on the fungi for sustenance. Once it has enough energy to produce leaves it will repay the fungi by providing carbohydrates. However, the relationship is not over at this point. Every spring, P. orbiculata produces a new set of leaves as well as a whole new root system. The fungi supply a lot of energy for this process and if the plant is disturbed (ie. dug up by greedy poachers) or browsed upon, it is likely that it will not recover from the stress and it will die. The mycorrhizal fungi it relies on live on rotting wood so finding well rotted logs is a good place to start searching for this species. With declining populations throughout much of its range, it is important to remember to enjoy it where it grows. Leave wild orchids in the wild!

Further Reading: [1] [2] [3] [4]

In Search of the Orange Fringed Orchid

In Defense of Plants is finally back for another exciting botanical adventure! This week we explore another wonderful sand prairie in search of one of North America's most stunning terrestrial orchids - the orange fringed orchid (Platanthera ciliaris). Along the way, we meet a handful of great native plant species that are at home in these sandy soils.

Music by: 
Artist: Eyes Behind the Veil
Track: Folding Chair
Album: Besides
https://eyesbehindtheveil.bandcamp.com/

Fall Leaves of the Putty-Root Orchid

Whereas most plants here in the Northern Hemisphere have largely geared down for the long winter, there is one species that has only recently begun a new stage of growth. Though it may seem damaging to produce leaves when a hard frost is just around the corner, that is exactly what this plant is doing. What's even more bizarre is that the plant in question is an orchid.

The putty-rood orchid (Aplectrum hyemale) may seem strange to most. Though it flowers during the same time as most of our terrestrial orchids (May through June), its display can be hard to track down. In fact, lacking any knowledge of a specific location, it is more likely that you will stumble across one before you pick it out of the hustle and bustle on the forest floor.

Flowering occurs at a different time than leaf out. The solitary flower stalk gives way to a single leaf starting in late summer or early fall. Why the heck would this plant start its photosynthetic lifecycle when everything else is about ready to go dormant? The answer is competition. Summer is not a bright season for those growing on the forest floor. This is especially true for a plant that only produces a single leaf.

What the putty-root is doing with its oddly timed leaf production is taking advantage of a dormant canopy. With trees and herbaceous leaves out of the way, the putty-root is able to soak up as much sun as it can get. This is a similar strategy adopted by spring ephemerals around the globe. But what does the plant have to gain from having leaves in the fall? Why not wait until spring to leaf out?

pr.JPG

As it turns out, it simply doesn't have to. The photosynthetic machinery within the leaves of the putty-root perform exceptionally well at low temperatures. Whereas most plants simply can't photosynthesize when it starts getting too cold, the putty-root is able to photosynthesize at temperatures as low as 2° C (35.6° F)! Not only does this enable the plant to get a jump start come spring, its also able to make food throughout most of fall and even early winter.

There does seem to be a limit to this. Once temperatures drop below 2° C, the machinery can't keep up and photosynthesis grinds to a halt. This is further complicated by the fact that the leaves are often buried under snow for months at a time. Certainly its mycorrhizal associations help feed the plant, even when it isn’t actively photosynthesizing. Regardless, this strategy is a great way of getting an extra kick while everything else is slowing down. Stories such as this bring to mind the story of the tortoise and the hare. Sometimes slow and steady really does win the race!

Photo Credit: Lance Merry (www.lancemerry.com)

Further Reading: [1] [2] [3]

On Orchids and Fungi

It is no secret that orchids absolutely need fungi. Fungi not only initiate germination of their nearly microscopic seeds, the mycorrhizal relationships they form supplies the fuel needed for seedling development. These mycorrhizal fungi also continue to keep adult orchids alive throughout their lifetime. In other words, without mycorrhizal fungi there are no orchids. Preserving orchids goes far beyond preserving the plant. Despite the importance of these below-ground partners, the requirements of many mycorrhizal fungi are poorly understood.

Researchers from the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center have recently shone some light on the needs of these fungi. Their findings highlight an important concept in ecology - conservation of the system, not just the organism. Their results clearly indicate that orchid conservation requires old, intact forests.

Their experiment was beautifully designed. They added seeds and host fungi to dozens of plots in both young (50 - 70 years old) and old (120-150 years old) forests. They continued to monitor the progress of the seeds over a period of 4 years. Orchid seeds only germinated in plots where their host fungi were added. This, of course, was not very surprising.

The most interesting data they collected was data on fungal performance. As it turns out, the host fungi displayed a marked preference for older forests. In fact, the fungi were 12 times more abundant in these plots. They were even growing in areas where the researchers had not added them. What's more, fungal species were more diverse in older forests.

The researchers also noted that host fungi grew better and were more diverse in plots where rotting wood was added. This is because many mycorrhizal fungi are primarily wood decomposers. Nutrients from the decomposition of this wood are then channeled to growing orchids (as well as countless other plant species) in return for carbohydrates from photosynthesis. It is a wonderful system that functions at its best in mature forests.

This research highlights the need to protect and preserve old growth forests more than ever. Replanting forests is wonderful but it may be centuries before these forests can ever support such a diversity of life. Also, this stands as a stark reminder of the importance of soil conservation. Less obvious to most is the importance of decomposition. Without dead plant material, such fungal communities would have nothing to eat. Clearing a forest of dead wood can be just as detrimental in the long run as clearing it of living trees.

Research like this is made possible by the support of organizations such as the Native North American Orchid Conservation Center. Head on over to www.indefenseofplants.com/shop and pick up an In Defense of Plants sticker. Part of the proceeds are donated to this wonderful organization, which helps support research such as this! As this research highlights: What is good for orchids is good for the ecosystem.

Further Reading:

http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1365-294X.2012.05468.x/abstract;jsessionid=3385C965FF5BA4CB83290005DFD47FD1.f01t02