Orchids in the Maryland Piedmont

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Aplectrum hyemale
Puttyroot or Adam-and-Eve is a hibernal perennial: a single leaf grows from a corm (an underground plant stem) in autumn, taking advantage of winter sunlight coming through the deciduous trees under which it grows, and then withers in spring. If conditions are right, it will then send up a flowering stem. In the Maryland piedmont that will be sometime in mid to late May. It’s native to eastern North America, and is on six northeastern states’ conservation lists (as endangered, threatened, etc.).






Galearis spectabilis
Showy orchis has a similar range to puttyroot, and grows in similar habitats (rich, moist soils in deciduous woodlands). It’s not a hibernal, though: the two basal leaves of a mature plant appear in spring and persist until mid autumn (young plants have only one leaf). A single flowering raceme produces up to a dozen flowers; look for them in starting in mid April in the piedmont. The flowers are purple and white, but there is a form with all-white blossoms, as shown here. Showy orchis is on five states’ conservation lists.



Cypripedium acaule
Pink lady’s slipper or moccasin flower grows in a wider range of habitats than the previous two orchids, including mixed deciduous-coniferous woodlands, and has a more northern and eastern range that includes the Appalachians, New England, the upper midwest, and parts of Canada. It’s listed in four states. Like showy orchis, the plant consists of two basal leaves and a single flowering stem, but this stem produces only one flower. It’s a spectacular one, though. Look for it in early to mid May in the piedmont.








Goodyera pubescens
Downy rattlesnake plantain is yet another native of eastern North American woodlands. This orchid likes drier, more acidic soils than the others. The plant has a basal rosette of white-striped evergreen leaves, and produces a single flowering spike in mid to late July. The spike can be more than a foot tall, with dozens of flowers crowded along the topmost portion.






Tipularia discolor
Like puttyroot, cranefly orchid has a single hibernal leaf that withers before the single flowering raceme emerges. This usually happens in mid to late July, and the flowers open roughly two weeks later. There can be four dozen or more tiny flowers on the spike. This is also an eastern North America native, but it’s found more to the south and west than the others. It’s listed in five states. Cranefly orchid grows in moist soils in deciduous and mixed deciduous-coniferous woodlands. At first glance the flowers seem to be bilaterally symmetrical, but they are actually a little torqued.






The Orchidaceae

Few plants inspire passion like orchids do: we’ve been cultivating them for 3,000 years, despite the fact that they offer us little by way of food, clothing, medicine, or anything else people grow plants for.  In Europe orchid cultivation began about the time the Dutch tulip craze was waning, and now there are over 100,000 known cultivars and hybrids.

The number of species is impressive, too, estimated to be around 28,000 (some experts believe there may be as many as 35,000), in over 700 genera. This makes the Orchidaceae either the largest or second largest plant family (the other being Asteraceae), in terms of number of species. In both families the number of species is constantly changing, in accordance with both new discoveries and phylogenetic research.

In North America, there are 310 species of native orchids, making the Orchidaceae the 13th largest family on this continent*.

In Maryland, though, the news is sad. Although there are records for about 44 species (29 in the piedmont), of these…

  • 9 have been extirpated
  • 1 is a waif
  • 1 is alien
  • 12 are listed as endangered and/or S1 (highly state rare)
  • 1 is S1/S2 (highly state rare)
  • 4 are threatened and/or S2 (state rare)
  • 1 is S2/S3 (state rare)
  • 4 are vulnerable and/or S3 (watchlist)**

Orchids grow in almost every habitat, except in true deserts, open water, and glaciers***. Most of the species grow in tropical rainforests, but the family is cosmopolitan: orchids are found on every continent (and Oceania) except Antarctica.

They can be terrestrial or epiphytic. An epiphyte is a plant that grows on another plant for support, without causing the other plant harm (therefore not the same as a parasite). The epiphytic orchids have aerial roots that absorb water and nutrients from the air. They are mostly found in the tropics, while the terrestrial orchids are mostly found at higher lattitudes.

Terrestrial orchids grow with certain soil fungi in mutually beneficial associations termed mycorrhizae (singluar mycorrhiza). Because of this, our native terrestrial orchids are extremely hard to grow in the garden; if the correct fungi are not present in the soil, the orchid plants will likely die in a year or two, and seeds will not germinate.


Orchids usually bear flowers on a spike, raceme, or panicle, or sometimes singly. A spike is a stem with single flowers along it (right); a raceme is a spike whose flowers have pedicels (below); and a panicle is a branched raceme.


Although there is a huge variety of form, orchid flowers are easily recognized. They always have three sepals, which can be single or partly fused, and are either green or petal-colored; and three petals. Of the petals, the two lateral ones are usually identical, while the center one is formed into a lip or pouch. The flowers are usually bilaterally symmetrical.


As for economic value, it’s entirely about the passion for ornamental flowers, with one exception: Vanilla planifolia, the only orchid species to produce an edible fruit. There are a few orchid species that produce edible tubers, but these have never been grown commercially.

next time: orchids in the Maryland piedmont

**Maryland Biodiversity Project
***Encyclopedia of Life

Happy New Year!

As far as botanizing goes, 2016 was an extraordinary year. I saw almost four dozen new-to-me species of flowering plants in Death Valley, more than six dozen species of in Iceland, and about two dozen in southwestern Colorado. You can read about these finds by scrolling through the archives for March and April (for Death Valley), and June and July (for Iceland).

Even though all this travel cut into my time in the Potomac gorge, I got out to other locations in the piedmont. And so I found even more new species. Here’s a 2016 retrospective, a hit-parade of the best new finds.



Galearis spectabilis
showy orchis





Galearis spectabilis, white form






Obolaria virginica





Rhododendron periclymenoides
pinxter azalea




Hypoxis hirsuta
yellow star grass





Aralia nudicaulis
wild sarsaparilla




Viola palmata
three-lobe violet





Cypripedium acaule
pink lady’s slipper




Baptisia australis
blue wild indigo





Goodyera pubescens
downy rattlesnake plantain




Hypericum gentianoides





Cunila origanoides
common dittany




Diodella teres





Polygala sanguinea
purple milkwort




Sabatia angularis





Trichostema dichotomum
blue curls




Euthamia graminifolia
grass-leaved goldentop