Mystery Plant! #708
Which plant group displays the showiest, most flamboyant flowers? Sunflowers and daisies? Lilies, daffodils, and amaryllis? Or maybe the iris family? (It’s fun to ponder this weighty question now, as spring is about to erupt, and not too soon!) But many of us will insist that the most spectacular flowers are found among the various orchid species.
The orchid family truly is a giant group, easily the largest plant family in the world, in terms of number of different species. Orchids as a family cover the earth–almost. They are indeed known from all but the coldest parts of the planet. Many are epiphytic, or growing on the branches of trees, but quite a large number, too, are terrestrial, at home on the ground. (Some are even weeds.) Orchids typically have sheathing leaves on the stems, which are alternating, one at each node. There is a tremendous variety of flower shapes, but they all follow a basic theme. Two very interesting things for some people to realize are that orchid species aren’t all tropical, and that there are plenty of these species that don’t have big, showy corsage-quality blossoms. In fact, some of these species have flowers that are very tiny and inconspicuous. Something else: all orchid species produce a dry capsule as a fruit, and it will be packed with lots of lots of extremely tiny seeds: probably the smallest seeds of any plant group.
Native, or wild, orchids are always a crowd-pleaser. In the Southeastern USA, there are plenty of different native orchid species, and some of these have relatively large, spectacular flowers. Among these striking orchids are the lady-slippers, grass-pinks, whorled pogonia, rosebud orchid, bog-rose, and showy orchis. Other orchids in our area have flowers that are a bit more modest. This week’s Mystery Plant is a species in the latter group.
It’s a small little thing, only a few inches high. Its leaves and stems are smooth, and usually sort of gray-green, or maybe pink or brownish. The leaves are pointed at the tip, and each one forms a sheath around the stem, which is unbranched. The flowers are clustered tightly at the top of the stem, and each one is white, with a yellowish “lip”. Actually, it’s not a native species here in the Southeast. It’s originally from eastern Asia, but has been popping up in lawns and gardens from Georgia to Texas for some time now. And, it now shows up occasionally here in South Carolina. We usually see it very early in the spring (as in now) while it’s still chilly. Apparently this little orchid likes to grow on mulch. The plants don’t seem to persist for very long in any particular place.
If you are interested in learning more about orchids of the southern states, you might want to consider “Wild Orchids of South Carolina” by Jim Fowler, offered through the University of South Carolina Press, published in 2005. Fantastic photography and very informative reading. (Photo by Linda Lee.) ©JohnNelson2023
[Answer: “Lawn orchid,” Zeuxine strateumatica]
John Nelson is the retired curator of the Herbarium at the University of South Carolina, in the Department of Biological Sciences. As a public service, the Herbarium offers free plant identifications. For more information, visit www.herbarium.org or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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