And Another Orchid

Once again, my friend K (the orchid whisperer) sent me a photo of an orchid blooming. The story is not dissimilar to the last one, so I’ll spare you the narrative and get right to the facts.

<—do you see them? they aren’t easy to find!

Liparis liliifolia grows in a large variety of habitats, wet and dry, soils more or less acidic. But mostly it likes disturbed areas, for example where there’s more sunlight due to a tree falling; however, populations will decline after a few years as the forest canopy closes in again.

Like showy orchis and pink lady’s slipper, it sports two basal leaves. The single flowering stem can bear up to 30 flowers.

Currently the Maryland DNR ranks large twayblade S2S3 (S2=imperiled/state rare; S3=vulnerable/watchlist). It’s endangered in Connecticut, New York, and Rhode Island, and threatened in Massachusetts and Vermont.



Common names include large twayblade, purple twayblade, lily-leaved twayblade, brown widelip orchid, russet-witch, and mauve sleekwort.

I can’t get over that translucent lip.






distribution map from USDA PLANTS Database

A Few More Orchids

A week before the pilgrimage to find large whorled pogonia, I’d found a few nice stands of showy orchis. It’s fairly common in dry-to-moist woodlands of the Maryland Piedmont, but it’s on the RTE lists of Maine, Michigan, New Hampshire, New York, and Rhode Island. I noticed while doing a quick web search that the name “orchis” (with the “s”) isn’t used often anymore; now it’s called “showy orchid”. This species used to be known as Orchis spectabilis, but recent taxonomic changes now have it as Galearis spectabilis. The common name “showy orchis” is just a translation of the old Latin name. You’ll find it under that name in older wildflower guides.

At any rate, this one grows just two thick, wide leaves at ground level, then sends up a single shoot bearing a dozen or more purple and white flowers. All-white forms are also known, but uncommon.

Also blooming about now is Cypripedium acaule. Like showy orchis, this plant produces two basal leaves, though they stand more upright; however, there’s only a single spectacular flower per plant. Pink lady’s slipper (aka moccasin flower) is fairly common (for an orchid) in moist woodlands throughout its range, but is listed in Georgia, New York, Illinois, and Tennessee. I’ve found it on acidic soils, near Vaccinium and other species in the Ericaceae.

A few days ago I ventured out again (more about that soon), and unexpectedly found a single specimen of yet another orchid, Aplectrum hyemale. Putty root, also known as Adam and Eve, is hibernal: each plant produces one leaf in the autumn that persists through the winter and into spring, then dies before the plant sends up a single shoot that bears about 15 flowers. According to the Go Orchids site, putty root seems to be found near sugar maple and beech trees. I’ve only seen it in deep shade, which makes it difficult to photograph.

Most (or perhaps all) terrestrial orchids in our area require complex associations with soil fungi in order to live, which is one reason why they aren’t widespread. As a result, orchids poached from wild areas usually die within a year of being transplanted.

further reading about orchids and mycorrhizal fungi:
Orchids and Their Mycorrhizal Fungi
Mycorrhizal fungi affect orchid distribution and population dynamics
Orchids Are as Finicky as the Fungi That Nourish Them


Friday morning, 8 May 2020: cool weather, overcast, rain threatening. In a little while I’m supposed to go on a hunt with some on-line friends who I’ve never met in person. Our objective: large whorled pogonia (Isotria verticillata), one of the more bizarre-looking orchids found in Maryland. I’ve decided to forgo the trip (bad weather for shooting, headache, I’ve already walked the dogs four miles today, the coffee is hot and tastes good), and then I get a message from my friend K. The message is a picture of a pogonia, on the same trail we’re planning to hike.

Well. Fifteen minutes later, coffee is guzzled and gear is packed, and I am underway.

How crazy are we? I arrive at the appointed place, introduce myself to D, and make excuses to continue on solo while he waits for B, as it’s already raining lightly and I really want to get good pictures. Ten minutes of fast hiking and I arrive at the place where the plants are known to be, and… nothing. Oh wait, there’s one, just barely in bud. That’s it. I spend 20 minutes searching, poncho deployed against the rain spattering through the trees, and can’t find anything. I hear D and B coming up the trail. We all start looking. Nobody can find it, even though we know it’s there because we have a photo from just a few hours ago. D starts combing the area while B and I walk the rest of the trail, each carefully watching one side and switching sides on the way back.


We return to D. He hasn’t found it, either. It’s now been 55 minutes since I got to the spot. Three experienced botanerds can’t find this orchid. Damn this is a stupid hobby. My head hurts. At least the rain’s let up.

Reluctantly deciding that we just need to get on with our lives, we head back toward the cars. D and B pause to look at something, and I glance off to the other side, and: “uh, guys?”  Because there it is. Right there.

We probably looked like the three wise men* worshipping at the manger, the way we gathered ’round, slightly bent, at a respectful distance (from the orchid and from each other, social distancing), hardly breathing, taking in the singular beauty of the thing. Oh, who am I kidding, this is one ugly flower. But it’s an orchid, and orchids have their own magic.

I was able to spend about 20 minutes shooting before the rain started again. In those 20 minutes did I get the perfect picture? No. Twenty minutes is long enough for me to get warmed up and start noticing all the little things that need to be tweaked (like light bouncing off a leaf in the background, or the bug that I never saw landing on the flower just as I pressed the remote shutter release). But I got a few good shots, and finally met two people who I’ve been friends with online for years, and we all got to see an orchid.

I’ll call that a good day.

To be fair, a flower like this is hard to spot. Standing only about 8 to 10 inches tall, and colored green, yellow, and brown, it’s well-camouflaged among the leaf litter and other plants.

As you can see from the USDA map, large whorled pogonia’s native range is from eastern Texas northeast to Michigan, Ontario, and barely into Maine. The species is on seven states’ RTE lists, but thankfully is secure in Maryland. Look for it in moist to dry woodlands with sparse ground-level vegetation. I’ve observed it growing among Vaccinium species, which suggests it might like acidic soils. It’s just starting to bloom in the Maryland Piedmont.


*or Larry, Curly, and Moe, nyuck nyuck

Two-Leaf Miterwort; Ethical Considerations

On April 11 I went hunting for two-leaf miterwort in the woods near my house. I found just a few plants, perfectly in bloom. But they were up a pretty steep slope. That steep slope used to have a lot more miterwort on it, just off the trail, but for some reason it doesn’t anymore.

A lot of families were out that day; social distancing was impossible without stepping off the trail. So, it seemed best to move up the slope and set up the equipment there. On the other hand, exactly that sort of disturbance is probably why there’s less miterwort this year.

I compromised by moving just off the trail, and using my longest lens (70-200mm) with a 1.7x teleconverter. I really wanted to get right up to the plants, and use the 105mm macro lens, but I just couldn’t let myself do it.

Mitella diphylla, also known as bishop’s cap, is in the saxifrage family. A forb of moist woodlands, it can found through much of New England west to Minnesota, and south to Tennessee and North Carolina. It’s rarely found in the northernmost portions of the deep South.

These are the best pictures I could get, given the circumstances. I really wanted clear pictures of the two stem leaves and the basal leaves. Maybe next year.

actually, not bad for 340mm!—>

Do you remember the so-called Poppy Apocalypse of 2019? That was the super bloom in southern California that attracted thousands and thousands of visitors. I was one of them. I was not one of the people leaving the trail to take a selfie. At the time I probably could have written many paragraphs about observed bad behavior, and the irony of trampling over something beautiful in order to get a closer look. It’s great that so many people wanted to experience this rare miracle of nature, but they ought to show some respect.

<—there are at least 16 people in this photo, most of them off-trail

Why is this hard? Respect other people and give them at least six feet of distance during this pandemic; respect nature, don’t destroy it.

Sweet Cicely and Aniseroot

Once on a nature hike, when I was just getting into native plants, someone pointed out a medium height forb with airy, ferny foliage and clusters of little white flowers, and called it sweet cicely. For years I didn’t question that identification, until one day I came across a discussion about it on-line. Seems there’s another species that’s almost identical to sweet cicely, called aniseroot. The two are closely related and at first glance almost identical in appearance. Osmorhiza claytonii and Osmorhiza longistylis (Apiaceae): what had I been seeing all those years?

The only way to answer that question was to go back through my pictures and look for identifying details. Fortunately, there are three characteristics that are easy to see.

O. claytonii

sweet cicely

O. longistylis


stem hairy smooth
flowers per umbellet 4-10 9-18
length of styles shorter than petals longer than petals
scent faint or none anise

I’d love to illustrate this post with current photos, but I’m still avoiding the trails, so I had to go through old photos and re-process them to show these features.
below left: smooth stem                                below right: hairy stem

Always examine the whole plant in order to identify it. Sometimes sweet cicely will have more flowers, but overall it should have fewer than 10 per umbellet. Sometimes aniseroot will have fewer flowers, but overall it should have more than 10 per umbellet. Sometimes stems will be slightly hairy, and sometimes the styles will be just as long as the petals. Individual plants vary. But if you consider all these characteristics, it should be easy to tell which species you have.

What had I been seeing all these years? Ends up, I’d been seeing both. They grow in similar habitats.