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
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.
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!
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