The Splendor of the Grass Pink

Grass pink orchid buds ~ Big Thicket

Despite its name, the native east Texas orchid known as the grass pink (Calopogon tuberosus) doesn’t live in grassy meadows. It prefers hillside seepage bogs, wet pine savannahs, or the edges of baygalls, where it grows amid sphagnum moss, an assortment of carnivorous plants, and wildflowers that include meadow beauty, pine-woods rose gentian, and ten-angle pipewort.

Neither a grass nor a member of the Pink family (Caryophyllaceae), grass pinks received their common name because of one long, narrow, grass-like leaf at the base of their stem, and their color. Calopogon comes from the Greek for ‘beautiful beard,’ a reference to the tuft of orange-yellow hairs  on the flower’s lip, while tuberosus refers to the plant’s tuberous corm.

Grass pink flowers open sequentially from bottom to top on a leafless stalk, so it’s quite common to see blooms and buds at the same time

Developing bud

Most orchid flowers have a prominent lip at their base; in contrast, the lip of the grass pink lies at the top. A modified petal, the lip is generally anvil-shaped; its cluster of bristly orange, yellow, or whitish hairs is known as a ‘pseudopollen lure.’

Resembling the pollen-bearing anthers of other flowers, the hairs trick insects into landing on the flower’s central column, where pollen sacs stick to the insect’s body before being carried to other flowers. The flower’s primary pollinators — bumblebees or leaf-cutter bees — are heavy enough to cause the hinged lip, or labellum, to swing down under their weight. If the bee already carries a load of pollen, it will contact the stigma and pollinate the plant.

Waiting for a pollinator

Grass pinks are native to much of eastern North America, occurring from Manitoba east to Nova Scotia and Newfoundland; south to Florida; west to Texas; and north to Kansas, Iowa, and Minnesota.

Listed by Illinois, Kentucky, and Maryland as endangered, they’re considered a plant of special concern in Rhode Island. While habitat loss plays a role, overly-zealous orchid collectors contribute to the problem, digging up plants for their personal pleasure.

The grass pink can be cultivated, and rather easily, but if you’d like to give it a try, purchase your plants from a reputable grower. Let the wild grass pinks live out their splendor in peace!

Grass pink and ferns


Comments always are welcome.


64 thoughts on “The Splendor of the Grass Pink

  1. Wow. That pink color is spectacular. Your images are wonderful. The range map shows that they are present in Northern Virginia where I live–it would be really cool to see one in the wild.

    1. The first I saw were on Steve Gingold’s blog. When I learned that they can be found in east Texas, I was thrilled, and I was so glad to finally find them. I hope you can, too.

  2. Sound advice, Linda. Let the wild plants alone. We need to enrich and reinvigorate natural landscapes not impoverish them further. It seems that every day in your country environmental safeguards are being eliminated right back to the Nixon era, and it is a cause for both alarm and dismay. It is bad enough not to enact forward thinking legislation which is sorely needed, but to deliberately roll back protections that already exist, is horrifying. I think that between them Bolsonaro and Trump would destroy the planet.

    1. I agree with your thoughts, but I am way more pessimistic. My firm belief is that mankind will destroy this planet.

    2. The first time I became aware of collectors affecting the numbers of flowers was in Kansas. There’s a particularly lovely white prairie flower there that’s known colloquially as “Arkansas wedding bouquet,” since so many people go out to pluck it for just that purpose. More than a few sites are adding cautionary notes to their description of the flower now, such as, “Don’t pick the flowers — call a florist!”

  3. When I saw the top photo, I thought you were joshing us on the pinks — and then they bloom. Oh, what fabulous blooms they are, too. These are truly lovely and your photos are spectacular. Thanks for all the background info, too.

    1. That’s quite a transformation, isn’t it? After decades of thinking orchids are tropical and live in trees, it’s been an amazement to find there are terrestrial orchids, and that some of them live in Texas. It’s just another reminder of how large our state is, and how varied it is from region to region.

  4. How beautiful!! What a nice find for you — and for us. I’ve never seen one of these (probably because they’re endangered here). Blooms open from the bottom to the top? That’s fascinating, Linda!

    1. From what I’ve read, you can find them in Lake and McHenry Counties — over at Illinois Beach and the Volo Bog State Natural Area. It was interesting to find that many of the plants they grow alongside here are part of those areas of your state, too. Just as I never thought of orchids as a Texas plant, I certainly hadn’t thought of them in Illinois, but your state is far more than cornfields!

        1. One of the things I love about having readers from all over is the chance to broaden my own horizons, Debbie. If I ever get to your part of the world, just think how much I’ll know about it!

    1. I’m not certain, but I think the rose pogonias already have faded away; I read that they bloom first, and then these grass pinks. The grass pinks will bloom well into June; I have a few photos of them from June of last year. Those weren’t good enough to post, so, I’ve been waiting all this time for another opportunity. I’m glad I got it.

    1. The thought of orchids in Texas still amazes me, Lavinia. There are at least four other species that I hope to find in the coming months; east Texas truly is a different world, and I’m looking forward to even more exploration as the year goes on.

    1. They do appear delicate, but I’m not sure how delicate they actually are. Individual flowers seem to fade in a day, but with so many buds on a stem, any given plant can bloom for some time. Their stems are sturdy enough to support quite a number of flowers; I don’t remember seeing any that were bent over by the weight.

  5. They are beautiful! The sequence is so important and I’m grateful you were able to get it. I’m curious as to which lens did you end up using, the macro or the zoom? I gather that with the last two shots you backed away to get it all in. It seems you had good light to stop down the lens and get a good aperture. They all look really sharp and detailed. Orchids are so big and three dimensional. I loved the sequence. Thank you!

    1. I used my 100mm lens for all. The first two photos of the buds were taken on April 26, and the rest on May 3, a week later. The day I found the buds, there weren’t any really nice flowers in bloom, so I had to go back. There certainly was good light; all were taken on sunny days, around noon. Last year, I stayed overnight, so I could be out early morning and later in the afternoon, but right now that isn’t possible, and the two and a half hour drive each way means mid-day photography. Still, it was worth it.

    1. I just learned that Minnesota has about fifty varieties of orchids; that was as much a surprise as learning Texas has orchids.. I still haven’t seen a lady’s slipper, and that’s certainly on my ‘to find’ list. One of yours that interested me is called the purple fringed orchid. We have an orange fringed orchid — wouldn’t they make quite a pair?

  6. Beautiful! And great photos.
    Your posts often send me running for a dictionary – – that’s not a complaint!! Very interesting to learn these new things, today’s word was “baygall” I don’t remember even hearing it before, but I really haven’t been in the south. It looks like these red bay leaves are not the bay leaves you cook with, but the article said they have a spicy smell when crushed, which sounds great.
    This grass pink orchid grows in the the Adirondack wetlands, though, and boy that’s a real incentive to drive over there, if I ever get some time off! Not sure when the university is going to open up the offices again. so not sure when I’m going back to Milwaukee. Excellent photos.

    1. I’d never heard about a baygall until I got to east Texas, and it took a while for me to wrap my mind around them. I can define them now, but I think I’d still have trouble identifying one if I came across it: mostly because I’m still not able to easily identify so many of the shrubs and trees that are found in them. There were some interpretative walks and such on the schedule for this spring, but it looks like self-teaching is the agenda for a while longer.

      I took a look at a site describing those Adirondack wetlands, and that was a surprise, too. I finally realized that where the grass pink lives, wetlands (or at least wet land of one sort or another) abounds. It would be fun to see them in a completely different area like New York or Illinois.

  7. It’s a beauty! Great explanation about how the pollinators do their thing and also for the advice to those who would like to grows these pretties–purchase, don’t dig up!! Lovely shots, Linda and nice post on a less known plant.

    1. One thing I learned but didn’t include in the post is that once pollination has taken place, that ‘lip’ folds down and doesn’t reopen. It’s like hanging a ‘closed’ sign on a restaurant door — with the faux anthers no longer visible, it’s less likely the bees will waste their time there. It reminds me of the bluebonnet banners turning from white to red after pollination as well as with age — the efficiency of nature can be astonishing!

  8. It’s always interesting to see how the common names of plants are derived. Grass pink seems appropriate, despite the lack of relationship to grass or pinks. And great photos showing the different stages of blooming!

    1. ‘Grass pink’ is a good description, isn’t it? It seems to be favored across the country, too. I’m often amused by the variety of common names used for the same plant, depending on its locaation.

      I was pleased to be able to find the flowers in bud and in bloom. Getting a good photo of a colony has evaded me so far; where the groups of plants are growing, they’re often so mixed with other plants it’s hard to see anything but a tangle of green and pink.

    1. There’s more beauty in even the smallest corner of the world than most of us realize. I’m glad to do my part to seek it out and share it, and I’m really glad you enjoy it, Gerard.

  9. This is a very nice natural history of the Grass Pink, Linda. As you know I am quite fond of them and look to find some every mid-June along with Rose Pogonias in a wet meadow not far from the house. That meadow often offers up ladies’ tresses a month later or so.

    Your images of the orchid’s stages are all exquisite.

    1. I had hoped to find rose pogonias this year, but it seems they bloom before the grass pinks, and I missed them. Still, being able to find these was a treat. Last year, I discovered them very late in their season, and I never did get any decent photos — not that it was any fault of the flowers. These made me happy. Now, I’d like to get some images of them in a larger context. I’ve tried, but been unsuccessful so far. I ought to have another chance or two.

      1. That’s too bad about the timing. Here the Grass Pinks are a week or so before the Rose Pogonias. I’d like to see your larger context when you get it. Not really possible in my wet meadow as everything around them is taller and the don’t grow in clusters. Sometimes there are two or three but mostly singles.
        Aside from portraits the most interesting shots I got was an early instar grasshopper sitting on the stigma which as you mention is inverted in this orchid and an also early instar katydid on another. I’ve not posted them on the blog so maybe I’ll do a flashback and share them.

        1. I’d love to see your orchids-with-friends photos. I found a metallic green beetle on one of them, and as you can imagine, the color combination is great.

          As for the larger context, I’m hoping for a cloudy but non-rainy weekend. Because of the distance to the Big Thicket, it’s a long day to try and spend any early morning or late afternoon time with the camera, especially if I try to get to more than one spot, but I think I may be able to work around that in the medium future without resorting to a motel or a pup tent.

  10. Oh…just loved this, especially the lookalike bug eyes! Beautiful photos, I admire how often you must return to get them. You should be employed by National Geographic. xxx

    1. I hadn’t even noticed those ‘eyes,’ Dina — how observant you are! I’m just glad I live near enough to be able to return from time to time. While I miss being in some of my favorite areas this spring, thanks to you-know-what, taking a closer look at more local spots is well worth it.

    1. Thanks, CheyAnne. I don’t know about talented, but I’m persistent. I figure my keep/toss ratio’s about 1/50 at this point, but that sure beats the 1/100 that was common a few years ago.

    1. The distribution surprised me, too. When I saw that they thrive in Lake County/Illinois Beach/Volo Bog, I wondered if you’d seen them there. Their bloom period’s pretty short — three to four weeks — so I suspect you missed them. I’m going to go back and see what other treasures you found during that trip that might also be found here; I suspect there are at least a few.

      This was another instance of a week making quite a difference. On my first visit, there were buds galore, but few flowers. After that week-long interval, the flowers were in full bloom.

    1. I grew up associating orchids with corsages for Mother’s Day and Proms. They were rare, and fragile, and expensive — the thought of multi-colored orchids popping up in meadows and wetlands would have been incomprehensible in those days. I suppose that’s part of what makes finding the native ones even more of a delight!

    1. The flowers are about two inches across: maybe a little larger. That upside-down-ness is really interesting. Here’s what one guide to native orchids says: “Grass pink reverses the usual orchid flower orientation; its lip protrudes from the top, making the flower appear upside-down. In all other native orchids, the flower ovary turns 180 degrees, so the lip petal, which actually forms in an uppermost position, as in the grass pink, becomes the lowest in position.”

      How about that? Here’s another article with some great photos and a lot more information about the plant.

    1. I like that image, Curt. Dancing fairies are light on their feet, and don’t trample the grass — I think we could all do with a little less trampling these days, of any sort. Bring on the fairies!

      1. Trampling does seem to be part of the times. Glad we have our animals and nature to restore a bit of balance, at least personally. Then I have a couple hundred sci-fi/fantasy books to escape into if that isn’t enough. I know escapism isn’t the answer, however. –Curt

        1. Most ‘isms’ don’t work out too well: escapism included. On the other hand, there’s nothing wrong with an occasional escape, whether physical or mental. When the basic choice being presented is “Keep up with the infection rate” or “keep up with the unemployment numbers,” a third choice can be healthy in the extreme.

          1. I confess I have always enjoyed Sci-fi, Linda, even when stress didn’t require a break. My library of 300 sci-fi fantasy books probably speaks to that. (Grin)

    1. How in the world could I spend so much time with these flowers and these images and never once think of the color ‘orchid’? You’re so good with colors — wait until you see the image of this flower that I’ve titled ‘sky blue pink.’

    1. I grinned at that. I recently remembered there’s another plant that grows out in the rocky hill country called mountain pinks (Centaurium beyrichii ), and yet another flower called meadow pinks that can be found on the prairies. In both of those cases, it’s color, not cutting, that gave them their common names.

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