Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Pink Ladyslipper or Scratch Another Thing Off the Bucket List

This entry's orchid is one not native to Florida, but native to the greater United States.

Growing up in Florida, I have appreciated how we are home to a wealth of orchid species found nowhere else in the country.  That does not mean, however, that other states in the Union don't have equally as lovely (and sometimes even lovelier) orchids that grow only outside our state boundaries.  One such orchid is one that I have wanted to see in person for decades as I have salivated over photographs of it in flower...Cypripedium acaule or the Pink Ladyslipper, also known as the Moccasin Flower.

This species is still relatively common throughout a large swathe of the eastern US and Canada, being found typically in pine forests where the pine needle litter tends to keep the soil quite acidic.  Without this acid soil, this plant will quite often succumb within a few years, while plants in the their native environs will last for decades.  These orchids, therefore, do not make good garden plants and are best left to be enjoyed in the wild.

With the help of some on-line orchid colleagues, I was able finally to observe this species in situ in a park to the southwest of Atlanta, Georgia. They were everything I hoped they would be and more.  The flowers themselves ranged in size from having pouches about 1.5 inches long to close to 3 inches long.  I am guessing the larger flowers belonged to older, more robust plants, while the smaller flowers must have belonged to plants just a few years old. One surprising characteristic was their sweet scent, reminding me of the scent of citrus blossoms.

In this, however, these flowers can be deceiving.  They offer no nectar or pollen as a reward to their pollinators.  Instead, pollinating insects end up entering the pouch-shaped lip through what is essentially a one-way valve.  The only escape is to climb a ladder of upward-pointing hairs going up the backside of the flower.  This path leads out underneath the waiting pollen masses and/or stigmatic surface of the column. The hapless insects who escape this trap end up dispersing pollen to other nearby flowers.  Not all insects do escape, leading to small collections of dead insect corpses in the bottom of the pouch of some flowers.

It was certainly the thrill of a lifetime to stand on that remote hillside beneath the pines and observe hundreds of plants in various stages of bud.  Only a few flowers were open, but that was enough for me to take some really pleasing photographs, if I do say so myself

In any case, here are some of the photos from that day (click each image to see a larger display):

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Rosebud Orchid (Cleistes/Cleistesiopsis bifaria) watercolor

The Rosebud Orchid, Cleistesiopsis (Cleistes) bifaria, is perhaps my favorite Florida terrestrial orchid (the Ghost Orchid, Dendrophylax lindenii, is my favorite epiphyte).  

I remember back when I was 13-14, living on the outskirts of Tallahassee in a semi-rural area with a state forest on one side and the Apalachicola National Forest on the other.  The previous year, an arson-derived wildfire took out a number of acres of mature pine forest, leaving a long swathe of moist prairie in its wake.  The forest service planted a number of seedling pines (which are now a near-mature forest again) in the area, but they were many years from maturing at this point.  Because of this new open area, we were able to hike in easily and observe the local flora - blue-eyed grasses, yellow star lilies, sundews, butterworts (big yellow and little blue), hat-pins, and bachelor's-buttons all grew in abundance in the area.  

One day, I came home from school to my mom inviting us to go out on a hike with her to see something "interesting" she saw earlier that day while hiking in the forest.  She suggested grabbing a pair of binoculars as we headed out of the door.  We followed the western edge of the prairie to a patch of forest close by that was mercifully spared from the fire.  

As we approached the area, I saw a few of the familiar white spirals of Grass-Leaved Ladies' Tresses (Spiranthes praecox) that we had also seen previously further out in the prairie.  As we hiked further along the remains of an old firebrake, we saw nearby some familiar fetterbushes with several leaves that had become swollen, thick and bright pink - our best guess is some sort of gall disease.  Further back toward the edge of some deeper woods, I thought I spied some more of these pinkened leaves.  "What do you see back there?" my mom asked me.  "Some more of those pink leaf galls", I replied.  

"Take your binoculars and look again."  I obeyed, expecting to see more of the same pink galls.  Instead, what I saw through the binoculars were two pink petals and a veined lip with contrasting brown-green sepals arching behind them and curving gracefully backward.  "Rosebud Orchids!" I exclaimed as I scampered toward them to observe them more closely.  All the literature I had read on them up to that point indicated that they were exceedingly rare, so I was not expecting to see these in the wild without a lot of searching, and certainly not within walking distance of my home!  I was elated.

I took to studying this species relentlessly, reading any information I could find about them in our wildflower books and later in Carl Luer's The Native Orchids of Florida (a 14-year birthday present).  It turns out that in the ANF and other portions of the Florida panhandle, this is a reasonably common orchid, but it does become rarer as you head into states north of Florida.  Ironically enough, the closely related Rose Pogonia (Pogonia ophioglossoides), which is listed as more common in the literature, seem to be much harder to find than the Rosebud in the ANF.

The plants are very stately, bearing a single vanilla-scented flower almost two inches in diameter on a tall solitary stem.  One leaf grows midway up the stem and another bract grows beneath the flower.  The entire plant is coated with a fine, plum-like frosting that makes it relatively easy to see plants out of bloom.  Only the tall meadow-beauties in the same area have a similarly frosted leaf, but the plants are so different, they can be easily distinguished.  The flower itself consists of a set of brown-to-green sepals that arch upward from the flower.  Sometimes the sepals are straight, other times they are curled at the end.  Occasionally, one finds sepals that curl completely on themselves like an emerging brown fern fiddlehead. The tube-like corolla (the petals and lip) is tilted slightly downward, surrounding a bright green column (gynostemium).  The two petals are similar and range in color from white to a light rose-pink, ending with a slight curl at their tips.  The lip is more darkly colored, bearing a plateau-like crest edged in rose and spotted on its upper surface and a slightly ragged edge.  Rose, green, and brown colored veins snake throughout the lip, giving it a most exotic and handsome appearance.

What I found most intriguing about this species is that such beauty could be found in a native American plant.  One would expect exotic orchids from the tropics of Brazil or Peru or Madagascar to bear such beauty, but an orchid growing just a few thousand feet from my home?  I took to sketching and doodling this orchid over and over in the margins of my homework notebooks, sketching it idly whenever I had a chance.  The shape became quite familiar to my mind's eye and I could easily draw an entire plant from memory.

Many years later, I can still easily sketch one of these without any visual aid.

If you want to read more about this species, follow the link below:

Quite recently, I have taken to experimenting with watercolor pencils, which are a most intriguing medium to work with.  You essentially color-pencil in your artwork on your paper and then use a wet paintbrush to turn it into a watercolor painting.  This gives me very fine control of the placement of the color, although the limited color palette of my basic set makes picking a proper blend of the colors challenging at times (I will try to upgrade to a more "professional" set some time soon). My first experiment in the medium was my Ghost Orchid painting, seen in an earlier blog entry and recently "digitally remastered" in Photoshop to smooth out the background to what you see below:

Ghost Orchid Watercolor Painting (Dendrophylax lindenii)

I figured it was high time to render my favorite terrestrial orchid in full watercolor treatment as well.  My main problem with the ghost orchid painting that I had done previously was the fact that I didn't try to use anything to mask the foreground while painting the background.  Hence, I had to try to fill in the background into some exceedingly small areas.  I also tried to use the watercolor pencils to color in the background and then wash over them.  This was very hard to smooth out to what I wanted for a background.  Hence, the digital makeover to fix this painting a bit.

This time, I used rubber cement for a masking compound, painting over the sketch I made of the Rosebud Orchid, based on this photo:

Cleistes bifaria (Rosebud Orchid)

The rubber cement worked like a charm for masking, allowing me to wash over the paper with impunity to create a much smoother background, but being transparent, it was hard to judge how it was working right at the edges. Hence, once the paper was dried and the mask removed, I had to try to touch up the somewhat ragged edges, which made it a little more difficult to keep the color entirely even.  It is my understanding that "professional" (read: expensive) masking compounds add a bit of color, making it easier to see where you are going with it.  I may try one of these the next time around.

Once the mask was removed and the edges touched up as well as possible, I began the task of painting the flower. I was most concerned about properly conveying the sense that the light was penetrating the upward-arching sepals and washing into the shadow at the base of the petals and getting the intricate coloring of the lip as correct as possible.  After a lot of painstaking application of layers of color - olive, clay yellow, brown, deep yellow, cherry red, carmine, lavender and forest green; I am pretty happy with the results.

So, without further ado, I give to you my Rosebud Orchid rendering in watercolor and watercolor pencil:

Rosebud Orchid (Cleistes bifaria) watercolor painting

And here is a closer shot of the flower to see the detail:

Rosebud Orchid (Cleistes bifaria) watercolor painting

I hope you enjoy this at least a fraction as much as I enjoyed creating it.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Copper Ladies Tresses Profile Up on the Website

I covered Copper Ladies' Tresses (Mesadenus lucayanus) in a previous post.  As is often the case, I use this blog as a way to get some information and photographs out prior to setting up a formal profile on the Florida Native Orchids website.  In this case, quite a bit of time has elapsed between the initial blog entry and the plant profile, as I put my focus on setting up other profiles and generally updating the website to fully utilize MySQL and PHP for the orchid gallery.

So, after a very long delay, here finally is the profile for Copper Ladies Tresses on the Florida Native Orchids site (click the thumbnail below to visit the profile):

Visit the Copper Ladies Tresses (Mesadenus lucayanus) profile on Florida's Native Orchids

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Happy Everglades Day!

On March 7, 2012, the Florida Legislature voted to designate April 7, the birthday of Everglades activist Marjory Stoneman Douglas as Everglades Day. Today is the first official Everglades Day.  Being the home to the largest collection of orchid species in the United States, the Everglades is a unique environment deserving protection.

By the way, the pictured flower is Vanilla phaeantha, an orchid that grows in the Big Cypress portion of the Everglades. Here is a link that describes this orchid more:


Thursday, April 4, 2013

Late Autumn's Last Hurrah - Spiranthes longilabris

Late in autumn (late October for north Florida and late November for central/south), one of our prettier white ladies' tresses species, Spiranthes longilabris, comes into bloom in open, wet areas.  Not very often seen, I often went hunting for this in my early adulthood in Tallahassee, to no avail.  Granted, I used Carl Luer's book as a guide, where he stated that they would go on Thanksgiving weekend to see them in the Sarasota area.  Two years ago, I was clued into a particular population, but I was a hair's breadth too late (we did find plants in seed...perhaps a week or two out of bloom).  

Most recently, a colleague pointed me to an unknown Spiranthes that he had photographed in a wild area in Palm Beach County.  Its long, lacy lip and widespread sepals were an unmistakeable dead-ringer for this species, not recorded in Palm Beach County before.  On my way down to an orchid talk in Homestead, I was able to visit the same area and to find them in full flower!  Notch another orchid species in my belt!

Here are a few photographs that we took this day:

Spiranthes longilabris - full spike.
Spiranthes longilabris - flower close-up.
And here is the profile page on the Florida Native Orchids website: 

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Prosthechea cochleata - An Increasingly Rare Orchid

Prosthechea cochleata, known as the Clamshell Orchid and the Black Orchid in Belize (it is their national flower) is relatively common in the tropical areas to the south of Florida, and it makes a tenuous foray into the southern swamps as well.  In times past, this would have been counted as one of the more abundant epiphytes in Florida, but habitat loss and collecting have made this increasingly hard to find.  Entire areas that once supported large colonies of this species have been stripped bare in recent years.  This is truly senseless, as this is not a hard species to find in cultivation, available commercially from many on-line orchid vendors and shipped right to your door.

This particular plant is a rather robust one, found deep in the Fakahatchee Strand.  It was in full flower in late November.  Interestingly enough, this particular plant was also photographed by the legendary Clyde Butcher and appears on his website.

Flowering spikes typically emerge in fall and bloom throughout the winter, providing no freakish weather occurs, bringing frost to the swamps.

Please don't take orchid plants from the wild, instead, leave them for others to enjoy.

Here is the profile page on the Florida Native Orchid website (click to follow it): 

And here is one of the photographs we took that day:

Florida Clamshell Orchid (Prosthechea cochleata)

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