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Vol. 8(12), pp. 3-8The McAllen International Orchid Society JournalDecember 2007

Mistaken Identities

Eric Olsen

Fig. 1. Pterospora andromedea. 02 September 2006; Santa Fe County, New Mexico, USA.

The first wild orchid I ever found--all by myself and without the helpful assistance of a knowledgeable botanist or some other sharp-eyed plant-lover--was not, in fact, an orchid (Fig. 1). I thought I had stumbled upon a small patch of Corallorhiza, but was mistaken. Instead, what I had really encountered was most probably Pterospora andromedea, a member of the Ericaceae family.

Fig. 2. Corallorhiza maculata. 02 September 2006; Santa Fe County, New Mexico, USA.

Fig. 3. Pumpkin-like seed capsules on P. andromedea. 02 September 2006; Santa Fe County, New Mexico, USA.

The plant family Ericaceae is so distant from Orchidaceae that the only thing they have in common taxonomically is that they are both families of flowering plants; members of the botanical division Magnoliophyta. Still, at least in mid-autumn, both plants do have a similar overall appearance: leafless, reddish-purplish stems with seed capsules clustered near the top (Fig. 2). However, a close examination of the capsules on P. andromedea reveals a distinctly un-orchid-like, five segment, pumpkin shape (Fig. 3). Such minor details did not dissuade me during this initial encounter. I was far too enthralled with having found my first "orchid."

Fig. 4. Trail along which plants were found. 02 September 2006; Santa Fe County, New Mexico, USA.

While I would like to blame my error on something external, perhaps a touch of lightheadedness induced by hiking in the thin air of the high mountains of northern New Mexico (Fig. 4), I cannot. The mistaken identity had much to do with what I was prepared to see. As the anthropologist Victor Turner (1967) observed of the Ndembu, an isolated African tribe:

[White, red, and black] are the only colors for which Ndembu possess primary terms. ... Very frequently, colors that we would distinguish from white, red, and black are by Ndembu linguistically identified with them. Blue cloth, for example, is described as "black" cloth, and yellow or orange objects are lumped together as "red."

In many ways, my own plant vocabulary is similarly primitive. On a hike in New Mexico I am likely to see aspens, pines, deciduous trees, evergreen trees, grasses, junipers, yuccas, bushes, legumes, wild roses, and (more recently) orchids. Like the Ndembu with color, for some plants I have a reasonably precise layman's vocabulary and the mental concepts that go with it; with other plants, I have very vague terms with which to see and describe the plant-life that surrounds me. While a botanist might see a Pinus edulis Engelm. (Pinyon pine) or a Pinus ponderosa Dougl. (Ponderosa pine), I will simply see a pine tree. I can be convinced that the two species of pine are different, but due to a lack of precise botanical knowledge and the terms that go with it, I do not really see them differently.

In the more specialized world of orchids, I am a little better off. I have begun to read a small portion of the vast literature on the subject and have started to learn what makes an orchid an orchid. I can now distinguish a Vanda from a Phalaenopsis and a handful of other genera. I even know enough to wonder why Home Depot and other mass retailers of plants insist on labeling their Dendrobiums with "Dendrobium Orchid," when everyone knows (or at least I do) that a Dendrobium is an orchid. Slowly, but with increasing facility, I am beginning to see new things in this alien world, learning to see at least some of the same shades of form and meaning that an orchid specialist sees. Might an Ndembu tribesman, determined to see the anthropologist's "extra" colors, go through a similar process? There is really nothing new before my eyes. The only change is in me; in what I can see.

Knowing that I was unlikely to see any orchids on my hike unless I knew what to look for, I had tried to prepare myself. Just before heading out, I scanned Ron Coleman's The Wild Orchids of Arizona and New Mexico to see what I might find in the Santa Fe area. In his appendix "Distribution of Orchids in New Mexico" (pp. 227-31), I found the following orchid species listed for Santa Fe county: Calypso bulbosa var. americana, Corallorhiza maculata, Corallorhiza striata, Corallorhiza wisteriana, Cypripedium parviflorum var. pubescens, Goodyera oblongifolia, Platanthera aquilonis, Spiranthes magnicamporum, and Spiranthes romanzoffiana. Given the lateness of the season (it was late September, almost October), I could not expect to find anything in flower, except perhaps one of the Spiranthes. Still, I glanced through Coleman's photographs of the various local species and headed out. I did not really expect to find anything. However, I had the idea that, other than the two slipper orchids, the local orchids generally flowered in a single, spiraling spike, and were either greenish or reddish in color.

On the hike, when I saw the reddish stem that looked a great deal like my fuzzy recollection of one of the Coleman photographs (I had not brought the book along with me), I "knew" that I had found an orchid. After examining the plant and taking a couple of photos, I continued on my hike, keeping a lookout for more orchids, but did not find any. Upon my return home, I downloaded the photos from the camera to take a good look. They were fuzzy. The small, digital snapshot camera had failed me. It could not focus as close as I had zoomed in and had not had enough light. So, I returned a couple of days later with a real camera (a now obsolete 35mm film camera). While taking a new set of photos, a couple of hikers came by, stopped, and asked what I was doing. I told them I was photographing the wild orchid I had found, telling them that it was one of the native plants in that area of New Mexico. One of the hikers said, "Interesting. Are you sure that isn't Indian Pipe?" With that, they went on, and now doubts began, and I started to look at and think more closely about what I had found.

Fig. 5. Seed capsules, Corallorhiza maculata. 02 September 2006; Santa Fe County, New Mexico, USA.

One of the first things I noticed when re-examining my discovery were the pumpkin-like seed capsules. They now looked distinctly alien for an orchid. Still, the plant was interesting, something I had never really seen before. I decided to search the immediate area for other examples. Hidden away, off the trail a bit, were more stands of the red stems. However, one looked a bit different as the plants were shorter and a bit darker in color. That was when I really discovered my stand of Corallorhiza (as shown in figure 2). The seed capsules on these plants were definitely not pumpkin-like and looked much more like orchid seed capsules that I had seen other places (Fig. 5). However, with my new found doubts I was unwilling to jump into a classification of "orchid" just yet. Instead, I took my pictures and finished my hike.

At home, while waiting an interminable hour to get the film developed, I looked through my orchid books again and did some web research on Indian Pipe, arriving eventually at Pterospora andromedea Nutt. After getting my pictures back, I compared the "pumpkin" ones to what I had found on the web and decided that the hiker was right; these were definitely not orchids. The "non-pumpkin" ones were then compared to Coleman's photos and seemed to be a toss up between Corallorhiza maculata and Corallorhiza striata, with no real way of telling for sure. Still, Corallorhiza seemed a safe bet. No need to commit to a particular shade of orchid just yet.

Fig. 6. P. andromedea. 13 July 2007; Santa Fe County, New Mexico, USA.

Fig. 7. C. maculata. 13 July 2007; Santa Fe County, New Mexico, USA.

Fig. 8. Micro habitat of both C. maculata & P. andromedea (on log; near center of photo). 13 July 2007; Santa Fe County, New Mexico, USA.

The following summer I went back into the same area for another look and again found small colonies of the two plants (the ones I had found the previous fall as well as a few new ones in the same general area). However, in the summer, the plants were much easier to tell apart. In bloom, or even just shortly afterwards, Pterospora andromedea (Fig. 6) would never be mistaken for Corallorhiza (Fig. 7). Equipped by my winter reading with a little more knowledge, and richer concepts about both plants, I was able to see much more on this hike. Both types of plants were often seen in the same area, sometimes close together (Fig. 8). They seemed to require the same conditions. They both grew in shallow draws, under pine trees, in a bed of natural pine-needle mulch. Luckily finding a single stand of Corallorhiza still in bloom, I was able to decide that the orchid that I had found was probably Corallorhiza maculata.

My summer observations accorded well with my book and web research. Both plants fit a similar niche in the environment. Neither has significant amounts of chlorophyll and so neither can manufacture its food directly. Both are classified as saprophytic: plants that get their nutrients from dead or decaying material. That would explain the growth in areas where pine needles collect and form a sort of mulch. In addition, each plant has a relationship with mycorrhizal fungi that allows it to feed on that decay. However, so far, not much seems to be understood by scientists about either mycorrhizal relationship. It would be interesting to discover if the two plants have relationships with the same fungi, if they require the same nutrients, if they compete for habitat. Another similarity was that both plants seem to bloom more or less at the same time. Maybe they also attract the same pollinators. Maybe they have similar moisture, light, and temperature requirements. Given that P. andromedea and C. maculata apparently occupy the same ecological niche, it is perhaps not surprising that they have an easily mistaken outward appearance during at least part of their life-cycle. Similar requirements and conditions could create similar solutions, even if via different paths.

Fig. 9. Close-up: flowers of Corallorhiza maculata. 22 July 2007; San Miguel County, New Mexico, USA.

I was now satisfied that I had indeed found and identified my first wild orchid. In fact, on another excursion in a different area, my orchid eye-sight seemed to have greatly improved. While hiking in the Pecos area to the east of Santa Fe about a week later, I again found Corallorhiza maculata in bloom, hidden away, slightly off the trail (Fig. 9). At least, I think I did, but I wonder. Was that stem red, white, black, or a subtle shade of pale goldenrod with a hint of salmon pink where the flowers attach?


Coleman, R. A. 2002. The Wild Orchids of Arizona and New Mexico. Comstock Publishing.

Flora of North America, http://www.eflora.org.

International Plant Names Index, http://www.ipni.org.

Luer, Carlyle A. 1975. The Native Orchids of the United States and Canada Excluding Florida. New York: The New York Botanical Garden.

Pridgeon, A. M., Phillip J. Cribb, Mark W. Chase, and Finn N. Rasmussen. 2005. Genera Orchidacearum: Vol. 4 Epidendroideae (Part One). Oxford University Press.

Turner, Victor. 1967. The Forest of Symbols. Cornell University Press.

USDA Plants Database, http://plants.usda.gov.

Copyright © 2007 Eric Olsen