This orchid is 'wild' in more than one way
Saturday, June 8, 2019
It's always gratifying when one of your former students comes back and lets you know how things have been going. Such was the case, actually several years ago by now, when my former pupil, Sanders McMillan, phoned me up to shoot the botanical breeze.
Sanders had been working within a local environmental consulting firm, and had been involved in several projects embracing what is known as "wetland delineation." One of his projects involved a forested wetland site, not too far from here, on the south side of Columbia. At this study site he made a rather impressive discovery.
His photograph is that of an orchid, and it is "wild," in more than one way. This species has a slender, upright stem bearing a number of smooth, strap-shaped leaves. A number of flowers are loosely arranged along the upper end of the flowering stalk. The flowers tend to be somewhat greenish, or even a bit yellowish, or in the case of Sander's plants, snowy white. As with all orchids, there are three sepals, and three petals. The two uppermost petals are small and squatty, but the lowermost petal is modified into what botanists call a "lip." In this case, the lip is quite distinctive, and it rather easily differentiates this species from its relatives.
This marvelous lip is divided into three portions, or segments, and each segment is finely divided into numerous threadlike divisions. A dramatic sort of raggedy-fringed effect is produced. At the base of the flower is a very slender tube called a "spur," an inch or so long, and projecting backward. If pollination occurs successfully, a small capsule will develop from the ovary, eventually producing a very large number of very small seeds. (This is a hallmark characteristic of all orchids.)
Our little forest friend is fairly widespread here in South Carolina, and indeed, is known from nearly all of eastern North America. It is fond of wet woods, often growing with other orchid species, and frequently seen in places featuring a lot of Sphagnum moss. Despite its wide distribution, however, this species is not very common anywhere, and its populations usually consist of fairly small numbers of individual plants. This plant may indeed eventually deserve attention as a species of concern, which is its bureaucratic ranking here in my state. Unfortunately, many orchid species are declining in population numbers due in large part to habitat loss, but also, I am chagrined to say, by overzealous collection by botanists and orchid-growers. The appreciation and study of orchids is a fascinating aspect of botany, and no matter where you live, there are bound to be local species to learn about. For plenty of information on a number of Southeastern orchids, consider "Wild Orchids of South Carolina" by J. A. Fowler, published in 2005 by the USC Press.
(Answer: "Ragged fringed-orchid," Platanthera lacera)
John Nelson is the curator of the A. C. Moore Herbarium at the University of South Carolina, in the Department of Biological Sciences, Columbia SC 29208. As a public service, the Herbarium offers free plant identifications. For more information, visit www.herbarium.org or call 803-777-8196, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.