Great Egret

Great Egret

Monday, 7 July 2014

Early season native orchids

The topic of orchid flowers conjures up thoughts of exotic flowers from the tropics, and the ones sometimes used as a corsage on special occasions. But not too many people think about some of the plant species which naturally occur in Ontario as being orchids. The fact is, there are approximately 60 species of orchids that are native to Ontario! And some are quite colourful and exotic looking in their own right. Rondeau Provincial Park can lay claim to 19 species growing within its confines, but the orchid capital of the province are the counties of Bruce and Grey, and especially the Bruce Peninsula, where at least 44 species of orchids are known.

One of the earliest to appear in the southwest is the Showy Orchis, which grows in rich hardwood forests. In spite of its name, it is not that showy unless you get down for a closer look. It seldom gets more than 15 cm (6 ") high, and may be obscured by taller vegetation. At Rondeau, it typically begins to bloom about the third week in May.

Showy Orchis

At about the same time, and in slightly more open woods, may be found the Yellow Lady's-slipper. It occurs as a large form and a small form, which generally occupy different habitats, but there may be some overlap.

Large Yellow Lady's-slipper

The Small Yellow Lady's-slipper can sometimes be found on some of the better quality native tallgrass prairies. There it can hybridize with an extremely rare native orchid, the Small White-Lady-slipper, especially if the flowering times overlap, which they usually do. The hybrids are even rarer than the Small Whites, and can take on some unusual but attractive colour combinations that draws the attention of serious botanists and photographers.

Small White Lady's-slipper

Small White Lady's-slipper
This species is, as its name implies, small, seldom growing over 20 cm (8") high. It does occur in one or two other places in Ontario, but in somewhat different habitats. The bulk of the Ontario population occurs on the private lands of tallgrass prairie in Lambton County. It is an Endangered Species under the various provincial and federal statutes.

Another type of Lady's-slipper is the Pink Lady's-slipper a.k.a. Moccasin Flower. Depending on the latitude, it may be in flower in May but a little farther north, will still be in flower in early June. It prefers the slightly more acidic sandy soils in sand dune systems which have developed to the point of also growing coniferous trees. It also occurs at the edges of bogs, which are not found in extreme southwestern Ontario.

Moccasin Flower

Moccasin Flower

By early June, another orchid appears in flower....the Puttyroot. This occurs in rich hardwood forests, and is not nearly as colourful as the previously shown ones. But it can grow taller than the others.

Puttyroot in flower

Puttyroot flower close-up
The Puttyroot isn't visible in flower for long. One of the ways to find it, however, is to look for their distinctive leaves during a period of late autumn to early spring when there is no snow cover. It is not a really rare species, but is certainly not common in spite of its relatively widespread range in southern Ontario.

Puttyroot leaves
An uncommon orchid in southwestern Ontario, but more common in the marl wetlands and fens of the Bruce Peninsula is the beautiful Grass Pink. In the southwest it may occur in very small numbers in wet grassy areas including tallgrass prairies.

Grass Pink

Later in June, another rare orchid appears, the Eastern Prairie Fringed Orchid. In spite of its rarity, it grows in a wide variety of habitats, from high quality tallgrass prairie, to the edges of marl lakes, to fens of eastern Ontario and even along wet ditchbanks! Some type of disturbance or environmental condition to keep the vegetation open seems to be the key to survival, so at least in tallgrass prairies, the regular occurrence of fire at the right time of year is a necessity.

Eastern Prairie Fringed Orchid

Eastern Prairie Fringed Orchid
One of the interesting aspects of this latter species is that it is pollinated by night-flying moths, and specifically the Sphinx Moth types. I was monitoring a population of this orchid near the former Windsor Raceway in the 1970s and early 1980s. It eventually died out, and one of the main changes in its environment were the extensive night lights that were along the road and the raceway. Moths don't function normally under well lighted conditions, so it is possible that the population of orchids went unpollinated, stopped producing seed, and the older plants eventually died out. Interestingly since that time, another population appeared a few hundred metres away, in a well shaded environment.

More on orchids in a future post....

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