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Wild Orchids

Updated: Oct 8, 2023

It’s Orchid season on PEI! To celebrate, I’d like to introduce you to some of the Island species whose paths I’ve crossed recently.

Photo 1: Grass Pink (Calopogon tuberosus, S3). This striking, magenta-pink Orchid is found mostly in Peat Bogs. Grass Pink is distinctive in that the lip – the petal that is modified to attract pollinators – is at the top of the flower rather than the bottom as seen in most Orchids. This lip has distinctive hairs that give rise to the scientific name ‘Calopogon’, which means ‘beautiful beard’. Each stem has multiple flowers and usually just one grass-like leaf at the base. When not in flower, this Orchid is easy to overlook!

The Orchid Family (Orchidaceae) is one of the largest and oldest families of flowering plants, comprised of roughly 28,000 species and dating back some 100 million years. They’ve had a long time to evolve complex (and beautiful!) flowers and reproductive strategies. Orchids are pollinated by animals – mainly insects – and go to great lengths to attract pollinators. Some emit powerful smells that bring in insects, even when the flowers themselves offer no nectar. Others cleverly mimic female insects to trick males into landing and pollinating as they attempt to mate.

Photo 2: Rose Pogonia (aka Snakemouth Orchid, Pogonia ophioglossoides, S3). This is another of our bog Orchids, but – unlike the Grass Pink – Rose Pogonia has just one delicate flower per plant, and is a softer pink colour. It reproduces well vegetatively, and so it’s not uncommon to find fairly large patches of it. You can see the lip – that modified petal – at the bottom of the flower, as is common in most Orchids.

Once pollinated, Orchids produce huge quantities of seed per flower, ranging from tens of thousands to millions. Flowering plants often attach a food reserve (called an endosperm) to each seed to help it get started and germinate. Because Orchid seeds are so tiny, they lack this endosperm. Most species compensate by requiring a partnership with soil fungi to germinate, making them very difficult to grow in captivity.

Photo 3: White Fringed Orchid (Platanthera blephariglottis, S3). Another of the Island’s bog Orchids, White Fringed Orchid’s bright white flowers and fringed lip (lower petal) are distinctive.

Perhaps because of their beauty and difficulty to cultivate, Orchids have long captured humans’ imaginations. Historically, Orchids were collected from the wild in large numbers, leading to many species becoming rare. More recently, plant breeders have created hundreds of thousands of new, domestic hybrids and cultivars. Personally, I prefer seeing wild Orchids in their natural habitats.

Photo 4: Arethusa (aka Dragon’s Mouth, Arethusa bulbosa, S2S3). The fourth of my featured bog Orchids, Arethusa is similar in colour to Grass Pink (Photo 1), but has only one flower per plant and the lip at the bottom of the flower rather than the top. When not in flower, the only evidence of Arethusa is its single, grass-like leaf which is easily overlooked.

PEI has more than three dozen species of Orchids. Across Canada, plant and animal species are ranked from S1 (very rare) to S5 (very common). You can learn about three more Island orchids - our Lady Slipper (Cypripedium species) in this recent blog post:

Photo 5: Broad-lipped Twayblade (Neottia convallarioides, S2S3). This is a forest orchid, and I found this specimen in one of PEI's best remaining old-growth forests in eastern PEI.

Photo 6: Ragged Fringed Orchid (Platanthera lacera, S4). Unlike most of the other orchids featured, this is a common species of old fields. This photo was taken on my own land in Central PEI where they are found scattered among my old hayfields.

Photo 7: Slender Ladies' Tresses (Spiranthes lacera, S4) is another of PEI's common, old field orchids. The genus “Spiranthes” means spiral flower. Ladies’-tresses is a beautiful botanical expression of a mathematical concept: a left-handed helix.

Photo 8: Yellow Ladies Tresses (Spiranthes ochroleuca, S2) is a late-flowering orchid usually seen in September and early October in damp, grassy areas. I found this one on an old woods road in eastern PEI.

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