n search of native orchids

While garden centers and box stores are content selling pots of ornamental orchids to bring home and enjoy, many people don’t realize that by simply taking a walk it is possible to encounter one of more than 40 species of orchids that grow wild right here in northeastern Ohio.

Just like their cousins from the tropics, Ohio’s wild orchids prefer damp and wooded areas. Unlike their tropical cousins, which are epiphytes that cling to trees and gather their nutrients and moisture from the air, Ohio’s orchids grow from the soil, which is where they gather their nutrients.

Wild orchids are perennials, plants that come back year after year from an underground root system. These terrestrial orchids have a root system that includes a partnership with fungus. This symbiotic root system is called mycorrhizas and enables many varieties of wild orchid to produce flowers without producing green leaves for photosynthesis. The most often seen wild orchid, Cypripedium parviflorum, is commonly called Yellow Lady’s Slipper. A small plant, like most wild Ohio orchids, the yellow Lady’s Slipper is terrestrial, perennial and can be found mainly in moist to wet areas. This plant has a thin stem with three to four lance-type leaves. It grows from an underground rhizome that is thick with clumping roots.

A native orchid that is not a lady’s slipper is the white-fringed orchid, or Platanthera blephariglottis. Platanthera is a Greek word for flat flowered and the species name, blephariglottis describes the fringe-like flowers.

White-fringed orchid is endangered in much of northeastern North America, including Ohio. It grows in the wet earth alongside bogs, lakes and streams. Like its name describes, the flower petals are long and fringed.

Most gardeners are fascinated by orchids, particularly native orchids that grow wild in our own back yards, but because so many are endangered, it is not a good idea to try to bring them to your yard if you find them in the woods.

Chances are, they won’t survive anyway since they are so particular about their habitat. Most wild orchids die when they are moved anyway. The best way to preserve wild orchids is to let them be wild and instead work to preserve their natural habitat.

That doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy orchid-like plants in your garden. Once such plant that comes to my mind also is a wildflower, but it is not endangered and like most orchids, is considered an herb because it can be a useful plant. That is Jewelweed, or Impatiens capensis. Most people know this plant as a remedy for poison ivy, but its orchid-like flowers have attracted growers to consider it as a landscape plant.

Jewelweed also is called “touch me not” because of the way the seeds seemingly explode from the seedpods when you hold them in your hands.

Unlike the barely there wild orchids, Jewelweed grows tall from three to five feet and it is an annual, but reseeds prolifically so to give the appearance it is a perennial.

Like the wild orchids, Jewelweed prefers moist areas and won’t survive under dry conditions.