On Saturday afternoon, this unusual sight greeted me at the Brazoria Wildlife Refuge. A spring ladies’ tresses orchid, taller than I’d ever seen, reached a full twenty-six inches into the air, swaying in the winds that were helping to form the clouds behind it.
Dark and wave-like, the clouds (Undulatus asperatus) were less dramatic at the refuge than in Houston proper, but they were noticeable all over the area. These ‘agitated or turbulent wave’ clouds form when rising air with some moisture content initiates widespread cloud cover, and wind shear blows across the rising air.
As for the orchids, a much smaller and differently-formed version growing nearby also seemed to be S. vernalis. Joe Liggio, an expert on our native species, writes in his Wild Orchids of Texas:
Several species of Spiranthes are so similar in appearance that either a hand lens or a microscope is sometimes required to distinguish one from another.
In truth, even with a hand lens these orchids can be immensely confusing. Still, between iNaturalist reports, various maps and descriptions, and others’ photos, I’m fairly certain these are the spring ladies’ tresses. There’s quite a history packed into this single sentence from Liggio’s book:
The spring ladies tresses was first described in 1845 by George Engelmann and Asa Gray, based on a specimen collected on Galveston Island, Texas, by the German botanist Ferdinand J. Lindheimer.
I’m less certain about this beauty, one of a pair found along the edge of a pine-hardwood mix at the Watson Rare Plant Preserve on Sunday. Obvious green lines inside the flowers suggest Spiranthes praecox: a spring orchid common to east Texas and distinguished from all other Spiranthes orchids by those same lines.
Finally, there’s this little oddity: a Spiranthes orchid without a spiral. It seems to meet all the qualifications for S. brevilabris var. floridana, a variety found in both Hardin County and Tyler County, where the Watson Preserve is located. According to Liggio:
[The Florida variety] is hairless, and its flowers scarcely spiral at all. [It] also lacks the pronounced fringed margin on the lip. It grows in wet, sandy soil in wetland pine savannahs, pine-hardwood forests, and prairies of East Texas.
This orchid, rare throughout its range, is represented by only five known herbarium collections from Texas.
Whatever its true identity, its one-sided flowering makes for a beautiful and eye-catching curve.
Comments always are welcome.