[ Home ] [ Articles ]

Vol. 6(6), pp. 6-12The McAllen International Orchid Society JournalJune 2005

Orchid Plant Exploring in Early May 2005

R J Ferry


When orchid hunting, when one goes can be the difference in finding several plants in flower, few plants in flower, or--in fact--just a few plants, or no plants at all! In late April, 2002, your editor and wife went orchid hunting in East Texas with Cliff and Sandee Pelchat and Joe Liggio (Pelchat, 2002). Plants of Tipularia discolor were relatively abundant, as were both the green and purple-flowered forms of Listera australis, and a Platanthera species was also encountered. Sadly, local needs and events prevented a return in 2003 and 2004, and the usual plethora of stay-at-home excuses surfaced again in 2005.

Common sense said to stay home. The eyes were not yet open on weeniedog Gretchen's two little puppies; the macaws continued to guard three more eggs; lawns called for mowing. The pecan trees, once leafed out, were hungry for zinc, and a strong case could be made for using the spraying equipment after a few days of intense effort to get it in working condition. In addition, the mere fact of more driving mitigated against taking an orchid plant exploration trip. The trip to McAllen for the monthly orchid society meeting (returning Sunday night) had totaled about 520 miles. Monday (the 2nd) was a stay-at-home-and-recover day, but Tuesday (03 May) added another 225 miles with the trip to San Antonio to order a camper shell for the pickup truck. However, Wednesday morning, despite no shortage of available excuses for procrastinating, the extended cab of the pickup truck was loaded with a minimum of clothing and field gear as well as a box for Gretchen and her pups, and your editor and wife were off to Houston to pick up a Samsung CLP laser printer (which will, hopefully, improve the quality of future journal issues). In the parking lot at the electronics store, a serious repacking exercise allowed the large box of the laser printer to be carried inside the truck's cab safe from any possible rain damage, and we continued driving north, toward the Big Creek Scenic area of the Sam Houston National Forest.

The Quest, Part 1

Fig. 5. Leaf of Tipularia discolor (Pursh.) Nuttall. USA; Texas; San Jacinto County; Big Creek Scenic Area. Digital photo #1219a, 04 May, 2005. R. J. Ferry

Fig. 6. Plants of Tipularia discolor (Pursh) Nuttall. (old plants bearing dried, dehised seed capsules) USA; Georgia; Habersham County, Nalls Lk area. 35mm transparency #6; 07 Nov., 1982. R. J. Ferry.

Plants of Tipularia discolor were relatively abundant in late April, 2002. Now almost none could be seen. This was to be expected. The solitary leaf of this terrestrial orchid emerges in late fall, and persists through the winter (Fig. 5). As the overhead vegetation's covering is still sparse, it gathers sunlight in early spring and then withers. After two to three months the flowering raceme appears. Years ago, in northern Georgia, the leaves of T. discolor were withered and gone by early May, and the same appears to be the case in eastern Texas. Personal herbarium records record a vegetative specimen of this species collected on 15 April, 1979 (Ferry 517), and an inflorescence-bearing specimen collected on 24 August, 1979 (Ferry 579). The herbarium record shows both were filed with a university herbarium (Fig. 6). Given that this eastern Texas population appears to have a life cycle very similar to that of populations observed in northern Georgia, a note was made to return to the Big Creek Scenic area in mid-August to photograph flowering specimens of T. discolor and survey populations.

In late April, 2002, both the purple and apple-green flowered forms of Listera australis were abundant and in full flower. This year, in early May, no dried seed-capsuled stems could be found despite intense scanning of specific area where populations had been seen. Obviously, early May is not the most fruitful time to survey the Big Creek Scenic area near Shepherd, Texas, but at least information was provided to contrast with that gleaned in 2002. After spending some time searching that area and simply walking through the woods, we drove a few miles north and to Livingston, Texas where we found a delightful antique store or two, and a very good Italian restaurant where we dawdled over dinner while Gretchen and her pups remained in their blanket-based box in the truck.

After spending the night in Livingston, we were up early Thursday, and returned to the Big Creek area for another "look around." We then drove westward, toward the towns of College Station and Bryan, Texas. Years ago (in late 1985) your editor had spent time in the Lick Creek area south of Bryan, surveying plants of Spiranthes parksii Correll. This species normally flowers in the October-November envelope, so we didn't expect to find it during this trip. In fact, we were happy to be able to find the Lick Creek Park after an absence of so many years, an onslaught of road building, metropolitan growth, housing projects, and all those associated developments commonly known as "progress." Indeed, even initially finding the Lick Creek Park area turned out to be something of a minor challenge!

The Quest, Part 2

Lick Creek is one of several small streams draining this relatively flat area into the Navasota River, with some of its significance relative to Spiranthes parksii recounted in recent issues of this publication (Pelchat, 2005a&b). In years past, the area was pretty much ignored except by a few individuals involved in the wild orchids of Texas, ecology, endangered species, and similar interests ignored by "normal" humans, and heartily downgraded by real estate developers. However, with the passage of time, what had once been merely a dirt road leading away from Texas Highway 6 turned out to be a widened and paved road joined by another that led off the highway farther down as a four-lane divided highway bordering a massive housing development complete with a golf course. At one point we wondered whether the Lick Creek Park (or access to that area) even existed at present! However, after a few fruitless forays on roads not shown on our 1988 map, we drove some distance on a dirt road and found the park. It had also seen "progress" with a well-developed equestrian trail and cleared trails established for walking or biking. Given the signs and paved parking lot, it took a moment to regain bearings that were familiar years ago. Then a cleared grassy area backed by brush stirred memories and we skirted the grassy portion and went directly into the left side of the brushy area where once there had been an excavated area where concrete and other rubbish had been dumped. Most of this area had filled in, but enough remained to confirm old memories, and we continued through the brush, keeping eyes sharpened to look for emerging orchid plants as well as any resident rattlesnakes or copperhead snakes.

Fig. 7. Area of Spiranthes species spotted. USA; Texas; Grimes County; Lick Creek Pk. 35mm slide #19; 07 May, 2005; R. J. Ferry.

Once into the forest, the brush thinned a bit and we were in and out of small clearings; areas where the sunlight came through to the forest floor for a few hours each day. In general, there were no orchid plants to be seen sprouting; no old stalks with emptied seed capsules; nothing! Then, as if to reward our persistence, suddenly there were two stalks of about 20+ cm. height (Fig. 7). One was barren, but the other bore the spiraled inflorescence of a species of Spiranthes! Elated, we set about photographing the plants and tiny flowers with both determination and some frustration. Your editor was armed with the relatively new Nikon digital camera and his aged-but-trusty film-Nikon camera. The area was receiving between 300 to 2500 foot candles of light as the cloud cover came and went. For the most part, between the forest cover and the clouds, the light was in the neighborhood of 300 to 900 foot candles. Light intensity wasn't the main problem, but the slight breeze was! Lacking a tripod, but it made for some effort getting good photographs while lying flat on the ground, holding the camera at flower level, yet remaining alert for those few seconds when the breezes calmed. The light meter said most good exposures would be made at a thirtieth of a second at f8,...and others at f5.6, with few brighter moments allowing exposures at one-125th of a second at f8. The digital camera was the problem! Actually, the problem wasn't the digital camera, it was the operator! The camera was set for auto-focus, and although the inflorescence was backed by a judiciously placed black camera bag only 3 cm. or so in back of the inflorescence, the camera insisted on focusing on the camera bag's material which--of course--under close-up photographic conditions, threw the inflorescence out of focus! There was no point in giving vent to well-chosen words of frustration. Pictures were taken, two flowers were gently removed and put in alcohol, the site noted, and we departed after further explorations confirmed that these were--indeed--the only orchid plants to be found, and only one inflorescence to be encountered.


Fig. 8. Spiranthes cernua (note sepals are above the lip) (Excerpted from a figure by VMW in Smith, 1993, p. 148)

Fig. 9. Spiranthes species in question. Preserved material 05 May, 2005. Dig. Photo #1235a, R. J. Ferry. (note lat. sepals below flower throat)

Returning home, after the usual unpacking and cleaning up, the film casette was dropped off for developing, and the digital pictures reviewed. Except for merely confirming the form of the spiral inflorescence, they were worth little except that most lateral sepals were falcate below the labellum instead of curving upward as is normally the case with S. cernua (Fig. 8), and the preserved material was similar (Fig. 9). Reviewing the literature added a new complexity.

Brown (2004) shows S. cernua flowering in September-November (December), with leaves present. Brown also cites S. lacera (Rafinesque) Rafinesque var. gracilis (Bigelow) Luer, the southern ladies tresses as "leaves usually absent at flowering," and flowering July-September.

Smith (1993), in his excellent book on the orchids of Minnesota, shows line drawings of flowers and lips of S. cernua, S. lacera, S. magnicamporum, and S. romanzoffiana. In these drawings, all lateral sepals except those of S. lacera are somewhat curved, and are pointing upward and held well above the downcurved and retuse labellum. Smith is clear that S. cernua has leaves present at flowering, but S. magnicamporum has leaves absent. As well, Smith lists the flowering envelope of S. cernua (in Minnesota) as "July 21-September 19" (p. 149), and says S. lacera does not appear in the southern United States.

Liggio (1999), gives flowering of S. cernua as October-November, and says "the three to six fleshy lance-shaped leaves wither away before the flower appears" (p. 165). Liggio refers to the "S. cernua complex" which involves S. cernua, S. ochroleuca, S. magnicamporum, and S. odorata, shows a full-page color figure of S. cernua in flower with no leaves present (p. 166).

Return to The Site

So what does one conclude with a plant flowering with leaves absent, like S. magnicamporum; out of season for S. cernua, and an inflorescence where most of the flowers hold their lateral sepals like S. lacera? Frankly, looking at poor digital photos and a couple of alcohol-glycerin preserved flowers, what your editor concluded was that he was going to return promptly to the Lick Creek site, make some closer observations, and--one way or another!--get a few good quality digital pictures rather than wait for film-transparencies to be returned in a couple of weeks!

Fig. 10. Spiranthes lacera variety. gracilis USA; Texas;Grimes County; Lick Creek Park. Digital photo#1243, 07 May, 2005, R. J. Ferry.

Fig. 11. Close-up of part of inflorescence. Spiranthes lacera variety gracilis Digital photo#1244, 07 May, 2005, R. J. Ferry.

Early Saturday morning, your editor was off on the 164 mile drive to the Lick Creek area of Brazos County, Texas! Once at Lick Creek Park, your editor went back through the brush and found the site with little difficulty. This time the digital camera's manual focusing capability was mastered and a few definitive shots were secured (Fig. 10) (Fig. 11) as well as a full roll of film taken with the trusty 45 year-old film Nikon camera. Finally, a few physical markers were placed in a subtle manner to assist the informed in pinpointing the site. Such measurements as could be taken without damage to flowers or either plant were accomplished, GPS coordinates of the site were obtained (and are available to specialists), and after not quite two hours of close-up photography and data gathering, your editor was back on the road and en route home.


Once home, with the digital photographs downloaded from the camera and uploaded into the computer, the identification was confirmed as S. lacera var. gracilis, not S. cernua! Correll (1950) notes the lip as "the central portion being conspicuously green," and Liggio (1999) mentions its "green-spotted lip," and his color photo of four inflorescences is very good. Smith (1993) is silent about floral coloring. Brown (2004) says the leaves are "usually absent at flowering time" (although with artistic license, leaves were illustrated as present on the flowering plant, p. 200). In writing about the labellum, Brown also notes "perianth white; lip oblong, with the apex rounded; central portion green with a clearly defined apron; individual flower size 4.0-7.5 mm."

Fig. 12. Enlargement of lower two flowers of S. lacera v. gracilis. Note detailed pattern within the 2.4 mm. opening of flower throat; Note also lat. sepals are well below labellum and obscured by it. Close-up enlargement of Digital photo #1244, 07 May, 2005, RJF.

All workers have provided good verbal plant and flower descriptions, and most have noted the internal coloration of the labellum, but none have shown the flower extremely close-up and looking into the throat of the labellum. A portion of the digital photograph taken of the inflorescence on 07 May, keying in on the labellum of one of the lower flowers shows the distinctive pattern of this species (Fig. 12). While other flowers doubtless have been seen that exhibited more green within the throat of the labellum, extremely-close-up photographs have not been provided in any of the literature. As a consequence, copies of some of the extremely-close-up garnered from this excursion will be provided to a few other orchid workers for their photographic records.


Fig. 13. Inflorescence: S. lacera v. gracilis USA; TX; Grimes County; Lick Creek Park Digital photo #1246; 07 May, 2005, RJF.

Orchids are not only where one finds them, but when. As well, one must be prepared to expect the unexpected! The earliest flowerings of S. lacera var. gracilis are reported in June or July. Hence, this sighting is probably one of the earlier ones recorded for this species, and the lesson for orchid explorers may well be to search both earlier and later than the "normal" envelope suggests. In addition, while it's obviously wise to make a list of equipment needed/desired well in advance of any exploring, what may not be as obvious is to overcome the presence of Murphy's Law in all human activities (basically, that if anything can go wrong, it will!). In short, if, despite one's best efforts--the photos are less than desirable--don't hesitate to return to the site and concentrate on getting the results desired (Fig. 13)! As well, despite possibly having the best equipment for field work, there is no substitute for having an orchid research library as complete as one can possibly afford.

In addition to sharing the knowledge gained by publishing, it is thought worthwhile to share photographic information with other workers as well. Perhaps this is just a personal, and somewhat philosophical point of view, but--little by little--if such bits of data are shared judiciously, the task of identifying a species in the field will well be eased for ones following. After all, the easier is made the search for orchid knowledge, the more enjoyable is the study of orchids, and as the late Dr. Benjamin Berliner once said, "Orchids are supposed to be fun!"


Brown, P. M. 2004. Wild Orchids of the Southeastern United States North of Peninsular Florida. Gainesville, Florida: The University Press of Florida. 394pp.

Correll, D. S.. 1950. Native Orchids of North America North of Mexico. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press. 399pp.

_______., and Marshall C. Johnston. 1970. Manual of The Vascular Plants of Texas. Renner, Texas: The Texas Research Foundation. 1881pp.

Ferry, R. J. 1976 to present. Herbarium vouchers, color transparencies, scans, and digital photographic records of species. (unpub. pers. notes).

Liggio, J. and Ann Orto Liggio. 1999. Wild Orchids of Texas. Austin: The University of Texas Press. 228pp.

Luer, C. A. 1975. The Native Orchids of The United States and Canada excluding Florida. New York: The New York Botanical Garden. 361pp.

Pelchat, C. R. 2002. Searching for Orchids in the Sabine National Forest. MIOS Journal 3(6): 3-4 (April)

_______. 2005a. Spiranthes parksii--Navasota Ladies Tresses. MIOS Journal 6(2): 9-15.

_______. 2005b. Spiranthes parksii--Additions to Last Issue's Article. MIOS Journal 6(3): 9.

Smith, W. R. 1993. Orchids of Minnesota. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. 172pp.

Copyright © 2005 R J Ferry