By Richard and Sybille Stromberg
The word "orchid" conjures up something rare and exotic -- those big, colorful, unusual blossoms you get from a florist to give to your mother on Mothers' Day or to a date to the prom.
The orchid family (known scientifically as Orchidaceae) is the largest plant family in the world, in terms of number of species. Estimates run from 20,000 to 50,000 species. Most orchid species are native to the tropics, but 25 species are native to the Northern Shenandoah Valley.
Most of the tropical orchids, including the fancy ones in the florist shop and for sale at the local garden center, are epiphytic, meaning they derive moisture and nutrients from the air and rain. The tropical ones you buy in the store are easily grown, but, since they are epiphytic, they are potted in bark chips or stones rather than soil so water can run over the air roots.
The local, native orchids are terrestrial, that is, they grow in the ground, but are difficult to grow in gardens because they have particular requirements, especially soil fungi that provide nutrients. Even where they seem to be established, they may not flower for many years or the plants may disappear completely and return another year. Some of our showiest orchids are blooming now: yellow lady's slipper (Cypripedium parviflorum), pink lady's slipper (Cypripedium acaule) and showy orchis (Galearis spectabilis).
The lowest petal of an orchid is often the dominant feature of the flower, and that is certainly true of the lady's slippers. Their lower petal is a pouch that resembles a slipper, hence the name. (Cypripedium translates as "Venus' shoe"). The yellow pouch of Cypripedium parviflorum yields its common name. Yellow lady's slippers have two long, narrow, twisted side petals and a banner-like sepal above the pouch and two joined sepals below. These flower parts are greenish-yellow or brown-purple or streaked with these colors, contrasting with the yellow pouch. The plants have three or four large, alternate leaves clasping the stem below the flower. They are 1 to 2 feet tall.
If you go up Freezeland Road from Linden to the Trillium Trail Parking Lot of the Thompson Wildlife Management Area to see the millions of trilliums, you can also see yellow lady's slippers growing on the banks of the fire road down the hill from the parking lot. If you walk the Snead Farm loop from the Dickey Ridge Visitor Center in Shenandoah National Park you can see a large population at the junction of Dickey Ridge Trail and the Snead Farm Trail. (It is a few feet from Skyline Drive.)
The pink lady's slipper (Cypripedium acaule), is similar to the yellow, but the "slipper" is pink. It has only two basal leaves. Its side petals are not as long and curled as its yellow cousin. The yellow lady's slipper will not tolerate acidic soil, but the pink lady's slipper seems to prefer it. They are often found in acid-loving pine forests or under mountain laurel.
The Wildflower Trail that connects the now-closed Massanutten Visitor Center on U.S. 211 in New Market Gap to the Massanutten South Trail used to be known for its pink lady slippers, but we haven't seen any there for a few years. Maybe they will come back. Some are still blooming on the higher trails south of the visitor center. Hikers can find them in Sky Meadows State Park and in Shenandoah National Park at the Byrds Nest 4 shelter above Skyline Drive mile 27 and on many trails south of U.S. 211.
The showy orchis (Galearis spectabilis) lives up to its name. Though it is less than a foot tall, the spike of three to eight flowers springing from a pair of egg-shaped leaves is hard to miss. Each of the 1- to 2-inch long flowers has a long, bright white, lower petal topped by a magenta hood. It can be found in many places in the Virginia mountains such as Dickey Ridge Trail in Shenandoah National Park, where a small wooden bridge crosses the creek a half mile from the trail head on Skyline Drive just inside the park entrance and along the Appalachian Trail going north from Linden through Thompson Wildlife Management Area to Sky Meadows.
Some species of our native orchids are blooming at every period of the growing seasons. Some are as spectacular as the three described above but are harder to find. Others are much smaller, some hardly noticeable. Downy rattlesnake plantain (Goodyera pubescens) is very common along trails. It is noted for its evergreen, dark green leaves with a network of white veins (like the pattern on a rattlesnake) rather than its tiny flowers. Another, lady's tresses (Spiranthes species), may show up in your lawn if you don't mow often, as in one of our dry summers. We have seen them twice in our yard in 15 years. They are tiny, but impress with the way the flowers spiral/curl up the stem, whence their name.
Guest columnists Richard and Sybille Stromberg live southwest of Front Royal. Richard is a Master Gardener and both love native plants and hiking. Email them at firstname.lastname@example.org