Which plants display the showiest, most flamboyant flowers? Some will insist they are the various orchid species.
The orchid family truly is a giant group, easily the largest plant family in the world, in terms of number of different species. Orchids as a family are found all over the world — almost. They are indeed known from all but the coldest parts of the planet.
Many are epiphytic, or growing on the branches of trees, but quite a large number, too, are terrestrial, at home on the ground. Some are even weeds. Orchids typically have sheathing leaves on the stems, which are alternating, one at each node. There is a tremendous variety of flower shapes, but they all follow a basic theme.
Two very interesting things for some people to realize are that orchid species aren’t all tropical and that there are plenty of these species that don’t have big, showy corsage-quality blossoms. In fact, some of these species have flowers that are very tiny and inconspicuous.
Something else: All orchid species produce a dry capsule as a fruit, and it will be packed with lots and lots of extremely tiny seeds, probably the smallest seeds of any plant group.
Native or wild, orchids are always a crowd-pleaser. In the Southeastern U.S., there are plenty of different native orchid species, and some of these have relatively large, spectacular flowers, eliciting a gasp from the hiker.
Among these striking orchids are the lady slippers, grass pinks, whorled pogonia, rosebud orchid, bog rose, and showy orchis. Other orchids in our area have flowers that are a bit more modest. This week’s mystery plant is a species in the latter group.
It is a bit unusual in that it is aquatic, mostly seen in very wet places, often in ditches or ponds, sometimes as a component of soggy, floating mats. For some reason it seems to like golf-course ponds.
It occurs in coastal plain counties from southern Virginia all the way to eastern Texas, then south into South America. In our area, it is a fairly common wetland plant, but it’s often overlooked.
The stems bear many leaves, tightly sheathing the stem. The sword-shaped blades themselves are bright green or sometimes yellowish. In fact, the flowers tend to be greenish, sharing the color of the foliage, and so the flowers tend to be somewhat inconspicuous.
These flowers are typical of orchids, though, in bearing three sepals and three petals. Each of the two upper petals is cleft into a pair of narrow segments. The third, lowest petal is also deeply divided, but into three very narrow, wiggly, thread-like portions. The whole effect of all this is that the flowers, which are crowded into a spike, appear something like little green spiders crawling around.
The plants often develop slender, pale runners that can produce new flowering stems. This water-lover is blooming now and will continue until frost. It’s not exactly a show-stopper, but this little orchid has a story to tell and we should stop to admire it.
John Nelson is retired curator of the A.C. Moore Herbarium at the University of South Carolina. As a public service, the herbarium offers free plant identifications. For more information, go to www.herbarium.org or email email@example.com.
Answer: Water spider orchid, Habenaria repens