A Gathering of Ladies

Spring ladies’ tresses orchid (Spiranthes vernalis) ~ Brazoria Wildlife Refuge

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.
S. vernalis seen against storm clouds ~ Brazoria Wildlife Refuge

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.

Spiranthes praecox

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.



63 thoughts on “A Gathering of Ladies

  1. Mistaken identity or no, these are beautiful. As a native Texan, I’m surprised that I’ve never heard of these orchids. Very unusual, and delicate. Thanks for introducing me to them.

    1. According to Liggio, there are forty-two species of Spiranthes. Thirteen are native to Texas, but when I looked at the distribution maps, none makes it past central Texas. To paraphrase the Soup Nazi, “No Spiranthes for you!

      However, while I was poking around in Liggio’s book, I discovered a gem called the red spot ladies tresses (Schiedeella parasitica). That one blooms in June and July in your part of the state; it’s found in the Davis Mountains in Jeff Davis County, the Guadalupe Mountains in Culberson County, and Trans-Pecos Texas. Here are some other snippets from Liggio’s description:

      “This orchid’s tiny size and light coloration make it difficult to see among the litter of pine needles in the shade of montane conifer forests. It grows on shaded slopes along streams and canyons… This orchid was recently found again in the Davis Mountains at an elevation of 7,500 feet. It was fairly common on a north-facing slope in a montane conifer forest of ponderosa and southwestern white pine. It is rather common in the mountains of southern New Mexico, often growing near the striped coral root and the spotted coral root.”

      So there you have it. Given your tendency toward canyons, forests, and elevation — well, who knows? I would have posted a photo, but the only one I can find is in the book. If you find a plant that looks like these but has a red spot, you’ll know what it is!

  2. Another one I’ve never seen before! You have quite a knack for finding — and identifying — these beauties, Linda. Thanks for helping educate me today!

    1. A “knack for finding” is one way to describe it. Another would be “lucky enough to stumble across…” I hardly could believe finding that tall orchid. It must have been a sight when it was fresh; you can see some of the flowers at the bottom already turning brown. The two smaller ones twined around each other are fresher, but even they’re fading a bit. No matter. It was enough to find them.

    1. Even within species, the variety is amazing. That’s part of what makes identification so difficult. There may be an infinite number of ways for the flowers to spiral around, and just because ‘this’ one doesn’t look like ‘that’ one, it doesn’t mean they aren’t the same species.

      I wasn’t entirely happy with that first photo, but I did want to combine the extraordinarily tall flower with that dramatic sky, and it worked out. Five minutes later, it was pouring down rain!

    1. More often than you might imagine, I’m more informed after writing a blog post. Seeing these gems is only the first step. Figuring out what I’ve found is the next.

  3. I’m not familiar with these lovelies, but what a beautiful set of shots! It’s always fun to find the oddity; I just figure it’s a flower (or whatever) that marches to its own drummer. Thanks for the intro to something new to me and wonderful!

    1. But you do have at least one of our Texas species in your neighborhood, and maybe more. Here’s one of Steve’s photos from near Bee Cave. Some bloom in the spring, and some in the fall. I wish I’d found the ones in this post earlier; they’re so beautiful when they’re fresh and pristine. But, given all the circumstances we’ve had to deal with this year, I’m grateful to have found them at all. It was like the universe saying, “Look — we know you couldn’t get out this spring, so we saved a few for you!”

  4. Great photos of the orchids and the clouds, Linda. I typically see the undulatus and mammatus clouds when I’m out on the golf course looking south from the hill country toward the escarpment north of San Antonio. There’s plenty of warm, rising air and wind shear there. My (probably faulty) memory tells me I’ve been seeing more and more of these clouds but it’s more likely that our local weatherman mentioned them one day and primed me for looking for them.

    1. Isn’t it funny how that happens? We hear a word for the first time, and suddenly everyone is using it. Or, we search and search for a particular wildflower and, after finding one, they seem to be growing everywhere. Once we’ve given a name to a phenomenon like a cloud, it becomes visible in a new way: all the more reason to keep learning as we go.

      To put it another way, keeping an eye on the ball and an eye to the sky can be equally important!

    1. You’re right, GP, and I never saw it. Their appearance seems quite delicate, but they’re tough little plants, and wholly unpredictable. A couple of years ago, a friend called me and said, “Get yourself out to my place. There are orchids coming up in my yard!” And they were — right in the middle of her lawn. She’d nearly mowed them down.

  5. I can see why it might matter to you or one who follows all the specifics of blooms the “real” name, but from where I sit, it’s perfect no matter what you call it!

    1. I do love the common name of these — ladies’ tresses. I’ve been told, and I believe, that it’s the resemblance of the flower to braided hair that gave rise to the name. When the plants are just beginning to open, the resemblance to braids is obvious, and so pretty.

    1. What a great image. Twist the flower into the clouds, pull out the cork, and let the rain pour down: which it did, not long after I took the photo.

      I haven’t come across the term Dementia praecox for years. The good news is that reading it took me back to the classroom, and not to an institution. But, yes: I’d favor Spiranthes praecox, too. Better a spiraling flower than spiraling out of control.

  6. Good for you for getting help in figuring out the proper ID. Colorado’s orchids are not nearly as challenging, as we have only a handful in the state. It’s always a special treat to encounter one of them.

    1. Some of our native orchids are easier to identify, because of size and color. Differences among these often come down to differences among those tiny flowers: green inside, or yellow, or white? Hairy on the lip, or not? For a good while, I couldn’t figure out why ‘mine’ looked so different from Steve S’s. Well, duh… Different area of the state, different species. At least all this examining has given me a sense of what I might expect to see!

    1. And there we have it: only 5:33 a.m., and I’ve already got the understatement of the day. They can be confusing, but I’d rather see them and be confused than not see them. It still tickles me that after a couple years of searching, I came across my first in Arkansas, at the Pond Creek Wildlife Management Area. We never know.

  7. I am often intrigued by the common names that people come up with when they come across an unfamiliar flower (or bird or insect, for that matter). The “ladies’ tresses” description seems particularly apt here. On a rather frivolous side note, another comes immediately to mind: I’ve had considerable fun with the common name of the naked ladies that used to grace our garden in Omaha. And there are certainly many more worth mentioning.

    1. We have naked ladies, too. People here will apply the common name to a whole variety of amaryllis and lilies across several genera, and some use the name even for our spider lilies (Hymenocallis liriosme), but the true naked ladies are delightful. A couple more fun names that come to mind are scrambled eggs and corpse flower; the first resembles real scrambled eggs, while the second has the aroma of rotting meat. Lovely, no?

  8. A gathering of ladies as fair and beautiful as you have shown is welcome thousands of miles away in my neck of the woods of Australia where a wintery blast is forecast promising breaking all records.
    Thank you for those lovely images, Linda.

    1. It’s become increasingly hard to keep up with the passage of time here, and it’s even harder to remember that in your part of the world, time’s passing, too. While your new season arrives, I’m listening to a summery blast outdoors, as strong, windy thunderstorms pass through. We could use a little more rain than the quick-moving storm’s going to bring, but at least our damage will be minimal. I hope your wintery blast isn’t too wintery, or windy.

      I was so pleased to discover these. I’ve missed several of the flowers I was looking forward to seeing this sping, so these were a sort of consolation prize — I’m glad they pleased you.

    1. That last one certainly is the best photo of the bunch, although the first is my favorite — primarily because of the height of the bloom. The unusual clouds were worth capturing all on their own, but there’s always a trade-off. The close-ups of that one’s flowers against the sky show the blooms to better advantage, but lose the sense of height. Choices, choices.

      The concept of terrestrial orchids was a new one to me when I discovered them about three years ago. I would have said we didn’t have orchids in Texas, except in pots in grocery store floral departments. How wrong I was!

      1. On that last comment: me too, Linda. I was really surprised when I first came across orchids up in the mountains. I’d always thought that they were limited to more tropical climates.
        As for the first comment, that’s always the fun of photography. Figuring out the best shot, or shots. And I never have a problem with posting several. –Curt

  9. Lovely captures! These stormy days the last few have been pretty dramatic! Haven’t seen any spiranthes around here lately but will keep an eye out!

    1. We finally got a bit of that storminess this morning, although the worst of it passed to the east (again) and I doubt we got more than a tenth inch of rain. Sigh. Still, I’m glad to have avoided the power outages.

      Honestly, I think these were stragglers. I saw a couple others that had completely faded, so I suspect the height of the bloom is well past. I’d hoped to find some rose pogonia this spring, but it seems I missed those, too. Ah, well!

  10. Looking at the edges of the flowers in that bottom picture, I’m surprised “serratus” wasn’t in the name somewhere. They almost look like blown glass specimens.

    1. I’d not thought of its knife-like appearance, but now that you mention it, I see it. Also: remember those single-edged barber tools that folded into themselves: the ones with the broken edges? I think they might have been akin to thinning shears. This one looks like it could fold into itself, too. I’d love to see that last one in glass, although I have some closeups of the flowers I’ll be showing that would be gorgeous in glass.

  11. What an unusual and beautiful orchid. You’ve done well to identify it (with so many similar-looking plants).

    Those storm clouds look really menacing.

    We’re under a cold front in Melbourne at the moment and the temperature has even suggested snow down to relatively low-lying hills. Seems like only yesterday we were in the grips of the hot humid days of Summer. Still, I’m sure the farmers are very thankful for all the rain.

    1. Even though many people see these frequently — and often in large numbers — I’m always thrilled to see even one. They’re so unpredictable; I saw one at the refuge last year, but it was several miles away. Some flowers pop up in the same location year after year, but not these. I once found hundreds in a field, but since then, not a single one has appeared.

      A powerful front just has rolled through, and our heat and humidity is gone. The wind’s so strong I tied up my wind chimes. In a breeze, they’re lovely, but clanking and clattering at 5 a.m. probably wouldn’t please my neighbors, even though I’m sure the storm woke everyone.

  12. I have had indifferent success with iNaturalist. The more common the organism the more rapid the response. Birds and butterflies, for example, generate almost instant replies. Mosses, lichens, insects, fungi, not so much! I realize there are fewer experts for some of these taxa, and even when a picture is identified, it is as likely as not contradicted in fairly short order. Nevertheless, iNaturalist has been a helpful addition to the identification repertoire.

    1. I use iNaturalist rather differently. Rather than posting photos for identification, I use it as a complementary search engine. If I have a genus in mind, I may enter that and then try to find the species. Sometimes I’m in a location where groups post photos of plants specific to that area, and a quick browse can be very helpful, especially with plants I’m wholly unfamiliar with. Following a few knowledgeable people is helpful, too. If you know something about the background of the person doing the identifying, it can help to assure accuracy.

    1. And you may know what I just learned — that the corkscrew itself was modeled after a piece of equipment called a gun worm. The gun worm had a corkscrew-like shape, but was designed to remove unspent charges from the barrel of a musket. Muskets and gun worms had developed by the 1700s, so the botanists of Carl Linnaeus’s time — who couldn’t have known of a corkscrew or a double helix — might have seen a gun worm in the flower’s spiral.

  13. That is the coolest thing, that spiral ladies’ tresses, never seen anything like it. Maybe because my mind just naturally seems to go in corkscrews and convolutions, but I’ve always like stuff in spiral shapes – – stairs, seashells, pasta, whatever. Except maybe tornadoes. And what fun to learn Undulatus Asperatus!

    1. The spiral shows well on that tall one. Even though they do spiral, the flowers on a lot of the smaller/shorter plants can tend to be a little messy. When they have the room to stretch out, they’re really attractive. When it was fresh, that tall one would have been a show-stopper.

      Like you, I enjoy spirals. There’s something innately appealing about them — maybe that’s why kids love playing with Slinkys. Even at a young age, those spirals fascinate.

      And then there’s this, from a Popular Mechanics article about the toys: “If you use a Slinky as an antenna, it receives at a frequency between seven and eight megahertz. So troops in the Vietnam War used them as impromptu radio antennas. Soldiers would clip the ends of the Slinkys onto radios and run the other end up a tree or toss it over a high branch. The lightweight metal coil provided a long antenna and a clear signal.”

      1. That’s great, I never heard that before. I haven’t read it, but there’s a book of short stories by a Vietnam vet, called “The Things They Carried,” and it popped in my head, because why the heck were combat soldiers carrying Slinkys around?
        I should dig mine out.

        1. Lisa Brunetti (Zeebra), who lives in Ecuador now, went through a period of time when she was using a metal colander as a signal booster. I don’t know what her current set-up is, but she might be able to put a Slinky to use.

  14. This is amazing! Your photography made the flowers look even more graceful! I have never come across these. And it was interesting searching for the others, scrambled eggs, naked ladies and so on. Thanks and good wishes, Linda.

    1. It took some patience for me finally to find some. They’re not uncommon, but they seem to be highly unpredictable. Just because they bloomed in one spot this year doesn’t mean they’ll be around next year. And sometimes they can be hidden in plain sight. Had I not seen the tall one in the first photo, I never would have seen the second and third twined around each other.

      Despite the flowers’ small size, pollinators of all sorts visit them. I’ll have a couple of photos of those, too.

  15. S. vernalis is beautiful, and such curious bloom. It spirals as it grows, and could pass by a unicorn horn from a fairy tale I guess. I love the clouds, and the gradient you were able to get. Gradients like those are not easy to get. Was it going to rain?

    Spiranthes praecox is really interesting also. I’m going to make note of S. brevilabris var. floridana because it might be around here also. I’ve made shots of the popular orchids, but many of the wild ones are out there, as I’ve read it’s one of the largest families in the world.

    1. It did rain at the refuge, but lightly, for about ten minutes. The storms were north and east, mostly around Houston — about fifty miles away. I’ve read that this sort of cloud tends not to produce rain; they accompany those that do.

      I’d wondered if you’d seen S. brevilabris var. floridana. We have a lot of your Florida natives here, thanks to gardeners, but it’s always fun to find a native plant that actually spans our states. I fear I’ve missed one of our wild ones I’d hoped to see this year, thanks to a combination of bad weekend weather and less traveling, but perhaps there’s a straggling rose pogonia out there somewhere, just waiting for me.

    1. Aren’t they great flowers? As far as I know, they’re immune to attempts to transplant them, or coax them into gardens. One of the best gardeners I know tried and tried, and got nowhere. Then, they popped up in the middle of her expansive lawn, and she nearly mowed them down because they were so unexpected. Then, after one year, they were gone. That’s part of what makes finding them such a joy.

  16. So what’s your trick for IDing a plant when you’re starting from, “I have no clue?” I mean, sometimes image search will sort of work, but just as often it apparently has no clue either.

    1. When I first started getting interesting in native plants, I truly had no clue. My basic distinction was “pretty flower” or “not so pretty flower.” As I became interested, I developed a collection of good books and trustworthy websites, and use those. I try to get the ID myself, rather than just asking, since I learn more that way.

      I start with color. If I don’t recognize the family (sunflower, pea, mallow, etc.) I try to figure that out next. Color and family can make things pretty easy, at least down to the genus level. If I’m still lost, I’ll do an image search using terms that focus on the plant’s environment as well as color and characteristics. Eventually, one that had eluded me turned up in a Google image search when I combined “texas salt marsh native plant red.” It was a salt-loving plant called pickleweed (Salicornia virginica).

      There are a lot of sites that provide lists of plants for specific areas, too. Every now and then I’ll spend some time browsing one or two that are specific to where I’m going to be. Knowing what might be around is helpful. I may not know what I’m seeing, but at least I can think, “Oh. I’ve seen that.”

    1. There’s something about a spiral that’s simply entrancing, no matter where it shows up. I’m accustomed to seeing spirals in snail shells and seashells, but when I found these flowers? Oh, my — what a twist!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.