Pilgrimage

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.

Nothing.

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

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