Losing Myself

Tuesday, 8 May 2018
8:16 leave house a little later than intended
8:47 arrive at park, shoulder daypack, start hiking
9:04 find orchids, set up, start shooting; reposition tripod several times, swap lenses, try some hand-held shots – the usual. About 15 minutes later, check my phone.

It’s 9:45.  Hmm.  Just a few more shots before heading back.

10 minutes later, check the phone: it’s 10:15.

That’s pretty typical for me when I’m shooting anything, but it’s worse when the subject is orchids.

This is Cypripedium acaule, pink lady’s slipper, a terrestrial orchid native to eastern North America. It ranges from the Appalachian Mountains in the south into most parts of the mid-Atlantic, New England, the upper Midwest, and Canada. In Maryland it seems to be in all the physiographic provinces but we have the most records for it in the piedmont.

It’s endangered in Illinois, unusual in Georgia, commercially exploited/ endangered in Tennessee, and exploitably vulnerable in New York. The fact that it’s exploited is particularly troublesome because, as I’ve written many times and as poachers really ought to know by now, transplanting orchids from the wild is a good way to kill them. They might survive for a little while, but without the correct fungus in the soil, they won’t reproduce and will soon die. The USDA Forest Service has a nice little article with more details.

This is what they looked like eight days earlier. —>

Although not on Maryland’s RTE list, this orchid isn’t common. If you find some, take a moment to lose yourself in the beauty.

Seven Down, Forty-some To Go

Sunday evening I’m on the computer, browsing various internet forums*, and I see a post from someone who’s found some nice flowers in a nearby park. When I read the words “large whorled pogonia,” my heart skips a beat.


So first thing Monday morning, plans to go hunting for lady’s slipper orchids are scuttled, and off I go to add another wild orchid to my life list.


Isotria verticillata (formerly Pogonia verticillata and Arethusa verticillata) ranges from eastern Texas northeast well into New England. It’s endangered in Florida, Illinois, New Hampshire; threatened in Michigan and Vermont; exploitably vulnerable in New York; and possibly extirpated in Maine. But it’s secure in Maryland, where it can be found in the piedmont and some western parts of the coastal plain.


Like most orchids found in the continental US, large whorled pogonia is terrestrial. It likes moist to dry woodland soils, and is pollinated by bees. Also as is typical of our native orchids, because of specialized cultural requirements, it isn’t very common.

I was on the same trail just five days before shooting these pictures, and didn’t see the plants. As you can see from the previous picture, they don’t exactly stand out, but they aren’t hidden, either. On the other hand, here’s a picture of one recently emerged and not yet open. I think it’s likely that five days ago there weren’t any to see.*fun for grammar nerds

Four Similar-Looking Plants and How to Tell Them Apart


Since the topic keeps coming up on various internet forums, I thought I’d write a little guide about these plants, all of which are flowering or about to flower now in the Maryland piedmont.

sessile bellwort, Uvularia sessilifolia; Liliaceae or Colchicaceae
perfoliate bellwort, Uvularia perfoliata; Liliaceae or Colchicaceae
Solomon’s seal, Polygonatum biflorum; Ruscaceae or Asparagaceae or Liliaceae
Solomon’s plume aka false Solomon’s seal, Maianthemum racemosum; Ruscaceae or Asparagaceae or Liliaceae
(apologies for the family name confusion, but authorities differ)

In flower, these four species are easy to distinguish. Before they flower, they can be tricky – indeed, the old common name of M. racemosum comes from the fact that it looks a lot like P. biflorum.

So, how to tell them apart when they’re young?

I prepared this chart based on my own observations cross-referenced by information in the Flora of North America via efloras.org, the New England Wild Flower Society’s gobotany site, and Illinois Wildflowers.

Uvularia species Maianthemum racemosum Polygonatum biflorum
stem form stems simple or with 1 branch stems erect or arching, sometimes zigzag stems erect to arching
stem texture glabrous, glaucous slightly hairy glabrous, glaucous
leaf arrangement alternate alternate alternate
leaf attachment sessile or perfoliate (per species) sessile, clasping or perfoliate sessile to clasping
leaf shape oblong-linear to oblong-ovate elliptic to ovate narrowly lanceolate to elliptic or nearly ovate
leaf base rounded to cuneate rounded to cuneate cuneate to rounded
leaf tip acute to acuminate acute or caudate acute
leaf texture glabrous glabrous glabrous, sometimes with a bit of a sheen
inflorescence 1 per branch, terminal but appearing axillary terminal axillary (in several axils)
#flowers/inflorescence one 70-250 typically 2, as many as 5

The descriptions are much alike, and frankly not that useful when the specimens are still young. I don’t have all the pictures I want to illustrate this post, but study the ones below;  I think with experience you can develop an eye for identifying these species by considering the whole plant as well as the individual details.

The bellworts are overall much smaller than the other two species, with shorter stems and smaller leaves.

Start with the easy one: perfoliate bellwort. The way the stem appears to pierce the leaf is unique, so it’s hard to confuse this with the others even when a specimen is very young.



Sessile bellwort is much smaller than M. racemosum and P. biflorum. Its terminal bud develops very early, when the plant is still tiny. Especially if the other two species are nearby, it’s pretty clear from the size and general appearance if a young plant is a bellwort.

perfoliate bellwort and Solomon’s plume next to each other; note how different the stems look (click to enlarge)

Perhaps the best way to distinguish M. racemosum from P. biflorum when the plants are very young is to look at the leaf tips. When the plants are a little older, they’re very easy to tell apart by looking for buds: M. racemosum has a cluster of buds at the very end of the stem, while P. biflorum will have a few buds at many (but not all) of the leaf axils.

I love that I found these two growing right by each other, but be warned, this P. biflorum is atypical: the leaves are exceptionally narrow. Note that there’s one flower bud dangling from a leaf axil. Also, check out the leaf tips (click on the picture to zoom in), because they’re textbook examples. P. biflorum’s is acute, and M. racemosum‘s is caudate.


P. biflorum with flower buds





young M. racemosum, no buds yet





zigzag stem, caudate leaf tips, and terminal inflorescence = M. racemosum




straighter stem, narrower leaves, and axillary flowers = P. biflorum




I’m working on a very complicated post that’s already a bit late for this season, but in the meantime here are two pictures of one of my favorites, dwarf ginseng (Panax trifolius). Yes, the specific epithet is misleading, since this plant sometimes has five leaflets rather than three. In the second photo you can see part of a mayapple (Podophyllum peltatum); that and the fallen leaves give you a sense of scale. Dwarf ginseng is at peak bloom now in the southern part of the Maryland piedmont.

(Click on the pictures, they’re so much more interesting when viewed larger.)





And what the heck, here’s a violet, because wow, look at that color.

Addendum: Well-Hidden

I should have written a little more about Obolaria in yesterday’s post, which I realized when someone asked a question in the comments.

The thing is, very little is known about this plant. I was able to find one paper* on the subject; in the introduction, the authors state:

Although morphological descriptions of O.virginica exist in various floras (e.g., Radford et al. 1968, Fernald 1970, Wood and Weaver1982, Gleason and Cronquist 1991), information about reproductive capacity or ecological parameters that might influence growth and development is lacking. For example, no information exists about the pollination biology of pennywort, nor have there been any studies to examine basic soil parameters to determine optimal growing conditions of this species.

The paper is interesting, but has no further discussion of pollinators.

I’m not patient enough to sit and watch a stand of Obolaria to see what, if any, insects come to visit. It would be an interesting project, though.

*Notes on the Biology of Obolaria virginica (Gentianaceae) in Southeast Missouri, and the Effects of Leaf Litter on Emergence and Flower Production
Diane L. Wood and Allan J. Bornstein
Department of Biology, Southeast Missouri State University
One University Plaza, Cape Girardeau, Missouri 63701


Do you see any flowers in this photo? They are there, slightly below and to the right of center. You’ll probably have to click on the photo to really see them.


This is pennywort, Obolaria virginica, a species in the Gentianaceae. It grows on the forest floor in deep leaf litter, from Pennsylvania and Ohio south and west as far as eastern Texas. Pennywort has little chlorophyll, so it doesn’t photosynthesize much if at all; instead, it derives energy from a complex relationship with a fungus and a host plant. This relationship is called myco-heterotrophy.

You may find some older sources that describe pennywort as saprophytic, but that concept is obsolete. As I was researching and fact-checking, I came across a great explanation from the USDA Forest Service: What Are Mycotrophic Wildflowers?


The flower color ranges from the medium purple shown here to nearly white, and the thick leaves are more purple than green. Th entire plant stands only a few inches tall.

Thanks to Katie for showing me where to find a good stand of these plants.

Feeling Moody

I’ve had a lot of fun the last few weeks shooting with the 70-200mm lens and the 105mm macro. A lot of pictures failed (that first lens is a beast if I’m shooting handheld in low light or a breeze), but I enjoy playing with light and shadows and I think I got some decent shots.


wild pinks (Silene caroliniana ssp. pensylvanica)





wild blue phlox (Phlox divaricata)





plantain-leaved pussytoes (Antennaria plantaginifolia)





early meadow rue (Thalictrum dioicum), staminate flowers




smooth rockcress (Boechera laevigata, formerly Arabis laevigata)





early saxifrage (Micranthes virginiensis, formerly Saxifraga virginiensis)





azure bluets (Houstonia caerulea)





leatherwood (Dirca palustris)





lyre-leaved rockcress (Arabidopsis lyrata)



sessile bellwort (Uvularia sessilifolia)