Orchids: The Grace, Strength and Beauty of the Mountains

By Julie Johnson

The beauty and mystique of Appalachia’s wild orchids have seduced many a woodland explorer. Like the flowers’ curious pollinating insects, these brilliant and prolific plants keep us coming back for more.

Orchids are a fascinating study in plant intelligence and ecological symbiosis. To ensure the continued existence of their species, orchids, through millions of years of trial and error, have developed intricate adaptations designed to lure their favored insect into carrying their pollen from plant to plant.

Once an orchid has successfully nabbed a pollinator, the survival of its germinated seed relies on another forest neighbor: fungus. Fungi fibers stretch out to the needy seed and give it the carbon it needs to flourish and begin the cycle again.

In Appalachia, over 50 known native species of orchids live in forests, meadows and rock faces. Take it slow on your next mountain excursion, and see if you can spot the glorious orchid at work. Remember, these plants rely on intricate systems for survival, so attempting to pick or transplant them will kill them, and further threaten already endangered plant species.

Spring Bloomers

Yellow Lady Slipper (Cypripedium calceolus)
Flowers April – June

This orchid bears a splendid yellow bulb under its wispy wine-colored petals. The Cherokee called it “Yellow Moccasin” and reportedly used an infusion of its roots to treat children infected with worms, and as an analgesic.

Pink Lady's Slipper

Pink Lady's Slipper

Pink Lady Slipper (Cypripedium acaule)
Flowers May – July

Like its cousin Yellow Moccasin, the Pink Lady Slipper is pollinated by luring bumblebees into its pouch. Once trapped, the bee can only exit through a complex reproductive maze. First it must pass beneath the stigma, which rubs off any pollen the bee may be carrying from a previous plant visit, then it works its way toward the exit, just past the plants pollen mass, which it carries on naively to the next plant.

Summer Bloomers

Downy Rattlesnake Plantain

Downy Rattlesnake Plantain

Downy Rattlesnake Plantain (Goodyera pubescens)
Flowers July – August

Rattlesnake Plantain is so called because of the unique snake-skin pattern on its dark green leaves. A cluster of tiny white blooms open like hungry mouths on its tall stalk, waiting for its bee pollinators to take the bait. This orchid also loves acidic soil, and can often be found growing in hemlock stands. Some traditional remedies claim that a tea made from the roots will cure snakebites, and a tea made from the leaves will cure rheumatism and toothaches.

Flowers Mid July – Late August

The Crane-fly is a noctodorous orchid, meaning that it only releases its fragrance at night. This attracts its favorite pollinator, the noctuidae moth, who receives the pollen on its eye from the slightly twisted column of the flower. During the winter the plant can be identified by a single leaf protruding from the forest floor, which is either dark purple or dark green, with purple spots.

Fall Bloomers

Yellow-Fringed Orchid

Yellow-Fringed Orchid

Yellow-Fringed (Platanthera ciliaris)
Flowers August – Late September

This flamboyant yellow-orange orchid is pollinated by butterflies and thrives in damp meadows and mountain slopes. Its small blooms feature a prominent lower petal rimmed with tiny fringe. They grow in a cluster at the top of a foot-long stem.




October Ladies’-Tresses (Spiranthes ovalis)
Flowers August – November

The Spiranthes genus has 300 known members of its family of delicate spiraling orchids. The flowers’ thin, 14-inch stalk shoots straight up out of the forest floor, ending in a tight spiral of small white blooms. It is a self-pollinator and prefers shady wooded areas.

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