A Flurry of Summer Snowiness

As with so many flowers, the snowy orchid, Platanthera nivea, rewards attention at every stage of life. From tightly clustered buds to bright white flowers, it shines in moist woodlands, bogs, and pine barrens, where it also is known as the  ‘bog torch.’ Common in Florida and other southeastern states, it’s considered rare in Texas, which lies at the western edge of its range.

As its buds develop, dark green flower stalks, perpendicular to the stem, become more obvious.

Soon, the flowers’ spurs emerge. These long, hollow tubes contain nectar; as butterflies and skippers probe for nectar, the pollinia — cohesive masses of pollen typical of orchids and milkweeds — attach to the proboscis and are transferred to other flowers.

As the plants develop, the combination of buds and fully opened flowers can be charming. Because they bloom from the bottom up, the familiar torch-like shape soon appears.

Each opened flower reveals a corolla of two petals and one modified petal called a labellum, or lip, which attracts pollinating insects. Unlike many orchids, the lip of the snowy orchid points upward, rather than twisting 180 degrees to point downward and serve as a ‘landing pad’ for pollinators. The botanical term for the process that results in a downward-pointing lip is resupination; because that twist doesn’t take place in either the snowy orchid or grass pinks, their blooms are described as ‘non-resupinate.’

While butterflies and skippers are the snowy orchid’s primary pollinators, spiders, ants, and other insects lurk among its flowers. Here, a katydid nymph hangs out, its white-banded antennae a nice complement to the emerging blooms.

As more flowers open, the raceme takes on an increasingly cylindrical shape and its fragrance — a light scent that some describe as citrusy — becomes detectable. Quite often, unopened buds and spent flowers are found together: the cycle of life demonstrated in a single plant.

I suspect these orchids still are blooming, along with the plants that often accompany them. Tomorrow, I’ll know whether that suspicion is warranted.


Comments always are welcome.

90 thoughts on “A Flurry of Summer Snowiness

  1. It is oxymoronic to say that it is beautiful. Are not all plants beautiful? I am curious, however, as to why you say they are principally pollinated by butterflies and skippers. Unless there are skippers unknown to me (very possible!) skippers ARE butterflies, in the family Hesperiidae if my memory serves me well.

    1. The skippers are, in fact, in the family Hesperiidae, but there’s a good bit of “on the one hand, on the other hand” in the sources I’ve read. This one, from Britannica, calls skippers an intermediate form between butterflies and moths; many articles note the various similarities and differences from butterflies the skippers exhibit.

      In any event, ‘butterfly’ doesn’t necessarily include the skipper in many peoples’ minds, so I think it’s useful to refer to both.

  2. It’s lovely and I love a citrus scent. Enjoyed the excellent photos, and the lesson – – two new interesting words. I remember an older person, telling some kid who was giving him sass, “That’s enough lip out of you!”. He could make that sound more polite, “Less labellum, if you please!”. I see photos in the news frequently, of a prominent figure who appears to be pouting, so we’d say “prone to resupination.”

    1. I like citrus, too. I wish citronella and lemon eucalyptus worked better at keeping the mosquitoes away; they’re fine for an evening on the patio, but out in the deep woods? Not so much. I laughed at your example of lippiness. I well remember the phrase, “Don’t lip off!” And just think — some creative entrepreneur could come up with a brand of lipstick called “Lady Labellum.”

  3. Going out of town let you go to town with these orchids, of which you got many lovely portraits.

    The plat in the genus name means the same as its English relative flat. Wikipedia offers this explanation: “Louis Claude Richard chose the name Platanthera for this genus; it comes from the Greek and means ‘broad or wide anther,’ referring to the separation of the base of the pollinia in the type species of the genus.” Can’t say I understand that explanation.

    1. Sorting through the images to find some that would show the details nicely was quite a project, but I was happy with the result. The bud in the top photo pleased me especially: its structure is almost Art Deco-ish.

      I don’t quite get that explanation, either, but I might have a clue. I searched for ‘Platanthera type species’ and came up with “TYPE: Platanthera bifolia (Linnaeus).” When I searched for P. bifolia, I found this page,, where it says:

      “The main differentiating feature when comparing these two species is the positioning of the pollinia, which in P. bifolia is parallel (see pic 6) and in P. chlorantha divergent, with the widest gap at the bottom.”

      That sixth photo is a good one, and it shows the “separation of the base of the pollinia.” Phew!

    1. Plants are so accomodating — if they all bloomed at the same time, it would be easy to miss the buds, or even the full flowering. I’ve been lucky to find these and the grass pinks in their prime, with every stage represented. By now, I suspect there are far more ‘cylinders’ than ‘torches’ — the changes are part of the fun.

  4. Very interesting, and quite beautiful. Never saw one before.
    The labellum (if you removed it, would that be a “labellumotomy”) reminds me very much of the Elephant’s Head, which grows near water in the high mountains of the West.

    1. What an interesting plant, your Elephant’s Head. It’s easy to see the trunk and big ears, that’s for sure. I chuckled when I read this in an article: “Pedicularis is an herb that is not well known outside of herbalist circles and the underground/head shop world.” Many sites that referenced it cautioned against over-collecting, and advised being certain that products were ethically gathered. It was interesting to read that it’s a hemiparasite, like Indian paintbrush.

      Even though we don’t have Elephant’s Head, we have Elephant’s Foot; it’s pretty, but much more common.

    2. Forgive me for stepping in, but removing it would be a labellumectomy. The “-otomy” counterpart would be making an opening in it. Picky, picky, I know, but I didn’t think you’d mind -Gary

      1. Your medical background is showing, Gary! ‘-Ectomy’ or ‘-otomy,’ the thought’s just as amusing. Now, if we were to consider ‘-ostomies,’ I suppose that might move us into the realm of nectar-robbing insects, which are completely real, and sneaky to boot!

        1. Yeah, I know, sometimes I can’t stop myself from butting in. So, further considering your thoughts, what’s wrong with being both completely real and sneaky?

    1. I’ve learned that there are many Platanthera species in Britain, and this is their season. Perhaps you’ll find one as you begin roaming farther afield!

      1. I’ve seen a few orchids this year; the usual suspects like early purple spotted orchid (I don’t know whether you get that one), but need to get further afield, as you say, to see others.

  5. Okay, so do the insects need to hover upside-down to feed on these orchids? Sounds pretty treacherous, but I imagine they’re used to it. You’ve introduced me to a lovely Southern plant, Linda — thank you. Great shot illustrating the various stages one plant can be in at the same time!

    1. No need for upside-down-ness, Debbie! Look at the photos that show the opened flowers and their long ‘spurs.’ That’s where the nectar is. A butterfly can hover in front of it, extend its proboscis, and sip away, just like they do at other trumpet-like flowers. It’s really fascinating to ponder how the insects and flowers evolved together to make such efficient feeding possible.

    1. Isn’t it a gem? I realized just today that another terrestrial orchid, the Chapman’s fringed, is in the same genus. Chapman’s is bright orange, and as ‘in your face’ as a flower can be. They come a little later — July/August.

  6. You’ve been busy Linda. Great photos and a well written description. Enjoy this lower than normal humidity for a few more hours at least…

    1. Hasn’t the weather been wonderful? They guys at Space City Weather say we should be good until about Wednesday, but given that it’s mid-June, a little humidity’s bound to arrive. I’m glad you enjoyed the photos. I’m certainly learning a lot about orchids, especially since I used to think all orchids were tropical, lived in trees, and were purchased at HEB!

      1. I went through a period back in the 80’s after working an orchid show at the Shamrock Hilton, where I spent more than I ever could justify collecting orchids. Needless to say, it was pre kids.

  7. Gorgeous! I saw someone else post these on Instagram—I think they are still blooming! Might have to make the trek back out there!

    1. If I can get my chores done, I’m rewarding myself with another Piney Woods day tomorow, so I can let you know how things are. As many plants as I saw still in bud, I’d be surprised if they weren’t still blooming — and the various mallows should be in full bloom, too. I’m hoping the titi still is blooming — I found it at the very end of its cycle last year, and don’t have any decent photos.

  8. These must be very close to your “path” to be able to follow the progression so closely. They’re gorgeous blooms in all their stages. There is something about pure white and that dark green that is so striking. I would love to be able to take a sniff!

    1. I agree about dark green and white. There’s something about the combination that makes me happy, and the white of these flowers is so pure — they’re just delightful. They aren’t exactly close — it’s a five hour round trip to see them. I was lucky to find plants in so many stages during the two trips I made. I certainly couldn’t run back and forth on a regular basis!

    1. I’ll confess it: part of the pleasure of these posts is how much I learn in the process. I certainly appreciate the flowers for their beauty, and enjoy the process of showing them off, but learning how they function — especially how they interact with their pollinators — is just as much fun.

    1. Thanks, Derrick. While digging around for some information, I found that the type species for this genus is Plantanthera bifolia, which just happens to be abundant in your New Forest region. There are some photos and more information here.

    1. I was so happy to manage a few photos that show those complex, yet delicate, details, Lavinia. If I get to see them one more time this year, I’m hoping a larger colony will have emerged, so that the scent is stronger. If only we could communicate scent as well as site on our blogs!

  9. You have certainly become the mistress of the interesting and beautiful blossom!! Your photographs are always so clear and with outstanding color and separation from the background. Wonderful examples and this one especially with the growth phases as the spire becomes fully flowered. As these are in Florida, I need to pay more attention!! That’s if I ever get out again!! Grrr!!!

    1. Judy, you gave me a good laugh with your remark that my photos always are clear, with good color and separation. The pile in my recycle bin argues against that! But I take comfort in something I remember a good photographer saying some years ago, when someone asked how his photos always looked so good. He said, “That’s easy. I only post the good ones.”

      While I love the pure white of the flowers, once I learned the name ‘bog torch,’ I liked that even more than ‘snowy orchid.’ It reflects the plant’s environment more accurately. Of course, when I hear the word ‘nivea’ and think of something bright white, this used to be what came to mind!

      1. I like’ bog torch’ too. In general I tend to enjoy the more casual names of things rather than the scientific. I love calling Wood Storks, for instance, Old Flinthead for its neck texture or Preacher Bird for its contemplating the universe expression and professor-ish stance, more than Mycteria americana. So much more a visual. Now I know what to carry into the swamp with a glow of white.

        1. Different names for different purposes, I suppose. I think of common names almost as nicknames. The scientific names are useful and important when clarity’s needed, especially since the same plant can go by a half-dozen common names — or a dozen plants carry the same common name! But for casual conversation, or an afternoon with our floral friends, those nicknames are perfect.

  10. The thing that never ceases to astonish me is the unbelievable diversity of things that can be made by stringing GATC on a double helix.

    1. I thought you’d enjoy that nymph! I think it’s a fork-tailed katydid, but I wasn’t completely sure, so I stuck with ‘katydid.’ Have you ever seen Minnesota’s tall white bog orchid: P. dilatata? It’s a beauty, too. There are some photos and information here..

      I surely do hope you’re able to get back to Minnesota this year, even though NZ isn’t the worst place in the world to hang out!

  11. What a lovely orchid. Good to see the various stages of flower buds too. I love the katydid nymph too. Great shot.

    1. I read that the katydid loses those white patches on its antennae as it matures, so I’m assuming this is one of the last instars. It’s certainly larger than many (most) of the nymphs I see. I finally learned that one way to distinguish katydids from grasshoppers is that the katydid has much longer antennae, and that’s certainly obvious here!

    1. The group wasn’t large, but it qualified as a group. Photographically, it wasn’t so good, because the grasses they’re growing among had grown considerably, and clear views weren’t so possible. Still, they were fun to see.

    1. The orchids certainly concentrated my attention. Learning how all those lovely parts contribute to the whole was great fun, too. I’m glad you enjoyed the posts.

    1. Another reader, who roams the mountains of west Texas, mentioned that same plant. I looked it up, and sure enough — the resemblance is real. We have one called elephant foot, so all we need now is the tail and the midsection!

    1. I didn’t set out to show the entire life cycle, but when I started sorting photos, it was clear that was the way to go. I certainly learned a lot in the process.

    1. This is one of the purest whites I’ve found in a flower, but I was surprised at how pleasing its lines are, both in the bud and in the barely-opened flower. ‘Sculptural’ is exactly the word for it. The nymph seemed to like it, too!

  12. That is a fantastic plant. Seeing the opening flower through your series of photos was like watching a compelling ballet drama — with appreciative nectar-drinkers rushing the stage at the end.

    1. What lovely imagery. I certainly was blessed to be able to record the entire process, from bud to the first hints of fading away. It was another instance of not realizing, until I looked at the photos, just how intricate the flowers actually are.

  13. It’s amazing how beautifully it blooms, in a segmental fashion, and how much movement it evokes with its diverse plant structure. You must have been delighted with it being a ‘nivea’.

    1. I certainly smiled when I realized that the jars of Nivea cream I’ve been familiar with for years were named for their snowy white contents. This orchid certainly is the purest white possible, but its structure is equally attractive. It’s common in the southeast, including Florida, so you might come across it one day if you’re ever roaming the bogs or pine flatwoods.

  14. I am sorry I missed this post earlier as it is filled with lovely examples of this orchid in its development.
    Channeling my inner Linda, I see a bicycle seat in the second image and a pair of hands in the third outstretched and saying…”What, I didn’t do anything and have no idea what you are talking about”. I’ll be going to my local bog this weekend…I’d go sooner but have started back to work…and see if the ones there resemble yours. There will be Grass Pinks if nothing else orchidy along with Pitcher Plants and Sundews.

    1. I love the thought of you having a local bog. Apparently a bog is a bog is a bog, even in places as widely separated as Massachusetts and Texas — although I found sundews blooming in the middle of a sandy road surrounded by pines last weekend. There were no more snowy orchid buds to be seen; they’re probably going to last only another week or two. That’s when that floral shrug you mentioned comes in handy in a different way, as if the plants are saying, “That’s the way it goes — whaddya gonna do?”

      1. There are different types of bogs. The one I visit is considered a typical bog with a mass of peat floating above a glacial pothole. You can feel it quiver even when walking on the boardwalk which is required as the mat is delicate. If I stepped on it I don’t think I’d become bog man II but I obey the order anyway. I’ve the next 5 days off so will visit there as well as chase mountain laurels again like last year. Whaddaya gonna do indeed. Ma Nature has her own timetable.

        1. It’s interesting that, from what I can figure out, our bog plants are the same as yours, but the structure of the bogs is different. One of these days I’ll sort through everything and figure out exactly what a ‘hillside seepage bog’ is.

    1. It is a wonderful flower. I was pleased as could be to find assorted plants in different stages, so I could show the entire life cycle. I didn’t realize how beautifully structured they are until I saw my own photos!

    1. Not being a skier, that never crossed my mind, but now that you’ve said it, I see it. And it’s such a fit with the plant’s common and scientific names, since snow and skiing belong together.

  15. Yikes! I hadn’t realized I’d gotten so far behind on blog reading.

    You’ve got a lot of good info here, but I gotta admit, I just skipped over and enjoyed the flower pics.

    1. This certainly is one of the most enjoyable flowers I’ve come across. I especially enjoyed finding so many stages to photograph, as you did with your dandelion. Sometimes I’ll find seedheads and not have a clue what the plant is; I have to wait through the entire year to finally see them blooming and figure it out. Someone with more knowledge than I have should do a field guide that just shows buds and seed heads!

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