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Vol. 13(9), pp. 2-4The McAllen International Orchid Society JournalSeptember 2012

An Early August Orchid Episode

R J Ferry

August began with a very sparse group showing up for the meeting at the Lark Center in McAllen, and despite the car's air conditioning system doing its best, it was still something of a long 500+ mile day down and back from Victoria, Texas. The next day was equally as long, and actually a little longer inasmuch as the miles covered were in the pickup truck, and the pickup's air conditioner wasn't functioning. If we had only known,...it turned out to be nothing more than a blown 20 amp fuse! Oh well, ...!

That day after the MIOS meeting was 06 August, and we were determined to see and photograph a patch of Tipularia discolor, one of the native orchids of Texas (and many other states!), so the trip to eastern Texas was made anyway. The day started well enough despite the lack of the truck's air conditioning system. We were off to a moderately early start (07:20 hours or so; early enough for senior citizens!). We were comfortable, our faithful dachshund Victoria was particularly comfortable in Wilma's lap. We traveled sixty or so miles, and stopped in Hallettsville for breakfast at a restaurant with which we were familiar, then continued on down the highway. Most of the driving was through rural country, with relatively small towns punctuating the way. Our destination was a forested area a little over 250 miles to the east of Victoria, Texas, in Polk County, near the small town of Shepherd.

Your editor has been particularly familiar with a certain patch in the Sam Houston National Forest, in Polk County, where -- during August -- one has always been able to depend on seeing plants of Tipularia discolor flowering in profusion. The area is pine covered, with oaks, gum trees, and Texas persimmon trees mixed in. Shrubbery is relatively sparse in the moderate-to-dense shade. Poison ivy is in the area, so one needs to watch one's step lest unwanted contact is made, but with the proper forest-walking attire and a little care, there's not much danger. However, just in case, we did have a tube or two of ivy-block lotion with us.

The pine trees filter the sun all year long, and the deciduous vegetation provides shade in the hot summer months. Tipularia discolor puts out its single leaf in the fall, and its leaf persists until early summer, so this seasonal lighting is ideal for this species of orchid. The soil is a sandy loam, usually fairly dry in August, but not to the point of being so "bone" dry that small plants and grasses begin to show stress by their leaves curling inwards. Even on summer days with temperatures in the mid-nineties (34-35° C.), the forest-shaded areas are relatively comfortable.

We were headed for a spot where, in past years, hundreds of leaves denoted hundreds of plants in this single patch of an acre or two. Elsewhere, plants are to be seen scattered in the forest, but not in any great concentration. This particular site was a treasure trove! We had encountered and photographed Tipularia discolor in northern Georgia and South Carolina, but never had we found it in this degree of concentration!

Fig. 1. Polk County, Texas - Sam Houston National Forest. Photo: DC_4795; Mon-06Aug-12.

We were in for a shock! In 2011 or 2012, something had happened! Somehow a large pine tree had split at about 2.5 meters above the ground. It had then been chain-sawed near the split in order to fell the tree, leaving a tall stump with a portion of the felled tree remaining attached. Log sections cut into 2-3 meter lengths, were left lying on the ground. Whether the initial episode was caused by wind, a lightning strike, or some other action wasn't readily verifiable, but the scene that greeted our eyes was relatively barren ground with patches of brush remaining in places (Fig. 1).

Where once one could easily count well over two to three hundred plants of Tipularia discolor, now not a single flowering scape could be seen! Further, there was almost no ground cover in the form of grasses and other small plants.

Your editor laid flat on the ground and searched in vain for a single flower scape of Tipularia discolor. Nothing! A few pine seedlings were spotted. Most were two to four centimeters in height, and a very few were in the 10 decimeter range (12 inches or so), but other than those, the ground was dry and bare.

It took little imagination to visualize how a few forest workers, intent on their chain-saw work, might really trample the forest area as they worked to clear a large tree tangled in other forest branches in an unsightly and possibly even hazardous mess should any non-thinking individual force their way into and through the mess. However, in the process of their "clean up" they evidently trampled hundreds of the solitary leaves of Tipularia discolor, and left the ground barren. Their "cleaning" may have been commendable from a forestry standpoint, but it will take years, even generations, for this orchid species to reestablish itself to the level it was just a year or so ago!

Fig. 2. Plants of Tipularia discolor in situ. Photo: DSC_4789; Mon-06Aug-12

Down another path, a sharp-eyed Wilma spotted a few scattered plants of Tipularia discolor. With some care to avoid the innocent-looking poison ivy plants growing, a few were photographed, and a few others spotted and a note or two made of their location (Fig. 2).

Ultimately, several stands of two to five plants each were found, each with infloescences either in flower or already setting seed. On one particular inflorescence, a noctuid moth -- a would-be pollinator -- had visited the inflorescence, but had been caught in the web of a crab spider and remained on the inflorescence, trapped and dead. Interestingly, these were found in an area of the forest where, hitherto this episode, none had ever been encountered in visits over a few years.

It was heartening, after a somewhat lengthy drive on a more-than-warm day, to be able to find and photograph plants of this species, but it gave cause for wondering whether this same problem of forest clearing is not a more than common occurrence not only in the US, but worldwide.

Similar episodes have been recorded in the United Kingdom and in Europe, and reports of forest devastation in Nepal and India have come to your editor's attention. Merely having forest rangers as a police force does not prevent the wholesale destruction of such once-plentiful stands of orchid species. Any such force must be equally knowledgeable about what they are protecting, where it is located, and how to protect it! Orchidists should give serious thought to recording such locations and -- instead of keeping such locations a secret to be known to only a few friends -- sharing their knowledge with the appropriate forest-ranger individuals! The ones in charge of forested areas must not only be aware of specific plant and animal species, and how to protect them from forest rapists, but overly zealous "housekeepers" within the forest itself!

Copyright © 2012 R J Ferry