Fascinating orchid

The Nature of PEI | by Gary Schneider

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There is something very special about orchids, whether they are domestic ones that grow indoors or native species that can thrive in our Maritime climate. On Prince Edward Island, we mainly associate orchids with the pink lady’s slipper, a beautiful woodland wildflower. Yet it is not the only one, not by a long shot.

In my wanderings during July, I came across many orchids in their full glory, and with such fun names—rose pogonia, checkered rattlesnake plantain, large purple fringed orchid, northern slender ladies-tresses. On one special day, I came across a rare plant that I hardly ever see in Island woodlands.

The large round-leaved orchid is quite aptly named and very easy to identify. It has two large leaves at the base of the plant. These basal leaves lay flat on the ground and are quite round, measuring up to 6 inches (15 cm) in diameter. Up to 30 greenish-white flowers are arrayed on a single stem, which grows up to 24 inches (60 cm) tall. The colour of the flowers in a shaded woodland is quite haunting.

This orchid grows across Canada and through the northern parts of the United States. In some places it is quite common, but not in PEI. It is listed as an S2 by the Atlantic Canada Conservation Data Centre, with the status of “may be at risk.”

We really have no idea why these orchids are so rare in PEI but we do know that a great deal of forested land in the province was at one time converted to agriculture. While some of that land has reverted back to woodland, many native plants are still missing from these wooded areas.

These orchids are pollinated by moths, so perhaps there has been a reduction in the number of pollinated flowers. We know that a lot of pollinators are in decline, so that might be one of the factors in the rarity of this plant.

Another possibility is that the seeds of all orchids are extremely small, much like dust. The problem with growing orchids, whether native or domestic, is that the seeds contain no food. The seeds of most plants—let’s use apple seeds as an example—contain an embryo (what will become the new plant) and the endosperm (what the embryo feeds on as it starts to grow). Without their own food storage, they would literally starve to death upon germination.

This is where complex natural processes really come into play. If the seeds fall onto soil with the proper mycorrhizal fungi, the fungal threads enter the new roots and transform nutrients into food for the orchid to begin its growth. It really takes a web of things interacting and probably quite a bit of luck for the seed to germinate.

Unless they grow naturally, orchids are generally cultivated in labs under very sterile conditions. It is not an easy process but there has been at least one business in the province growing orchids. I did once have a person tell me about spreading lady’s slipper seeds throughout their woods and having great success but that is not something that I’ve ever experienced.

There is really so much we still have to learn about this fascinating family of plants. Perhaps you might start taking more note of this species and keeping a list of orchids you see on your travels. Some are white, yellow or pink, or a combination of colours. But they’re all worthy of our attention and bring us closer to the beauty that surrounds us in the natural world.

Gary SchneiderThe Nature of PEI