A Nod to Nodding Ladies’-tresses Orchids

Center pot with Nodding Ladies'tresses orchids on 9-25

Center pot with Nodding Ladies’tresses orchids on 9-25

Most of our native North American orchids produce much subtler flowers than the ones people keep in pots in their houses, or see dangling among trees in exotic tropical jungles, or nervous teenage boys pin on their prom dates as corsages, but I think their subtlety makes them that much more special.

I have long admired the Nodding Ladies’-tresses orchids (Spiranthes cernua) that bloom abundantly among pitcher plants and Venus fly-traps this time every year in the carnivorous plant display at the NC Botanical Garden. That’s why last fall, when I spotted some healthy blooming specimens at their plant sale, I couldn’t resist buying a pot, even though I had promised myself I was only buying milkweeds. I picked out a pot with two plants in it that was in active, gorgeous bloom, as you can see if your scroll through the post I wrote about my acquisitions last year.

My pot of Nodding Ladies-tresses orchids on 9-7-2015

My pot of Nodding Ladies-tresses orchids on 9-7-2015

I planted my orchids in a pot with some moisture-loving milkweeds and a cardinal flower, keeping the pot evenly moist in my greenhouse through the winter, and partially immersing it in my front water feature after the last frost. On September 7, I suddenly realized I was seeing multiple orchid bloom stalks — twelve in all!

My research tells me that this is the most common species of Spiranthes in North America. You can find it in sandy, moist soil from eastern Canada all the way south to Texas and Florida, and as far west as southern North Dakota.

A close-up of a bloom stalk on 9-7-2015

A close-up of a bloom stalk on 9-7-2015

I was congratulating myself on my orchids’ productivity, until my research revealed that enthusiastic vegetative reproduction is a key trait of this species, and probably one of the reasons for its wide range. But you must provide the right growing conditions to see this kind of productivity, so I can pat myself on the back for giving these beauties what they needed to bloom so well.

My pot of orchids on 9-18-2015

My pot of orchids on 9-18-2015

As soon as I realized my orchids had sent up bloom stalks, I began taking photos, so that I could document the unfurling of the small-but-exquisite ivory flowers as they began to open. The buds spiral around the bloom stalk, looking a bit like a spiral staircase, with the first flowers opening at the bottom, then more and more in succession, winding their way to the top.

A close view of a bloom stalk on 9-18-2015

A close view of a bloom stalk on 9-18-2015

It took longer than I thought it would for most of the flowers to open. I blame the prolonged bout of cloudy weather my region has recently seen. But as soon as we got several sunny days in a row, the flowers took off.

Blooming Nodding Ladies-tresses orchids on 9-24-2015

Blooming Nodding Ladies-tresses orchids on 9-24-2015

I wish I could show you a super-close-up of one flower, but I think I need a macro lens for that. This is as close as I could manage on September 24:

spiranthes close 9-24

If you grow pitcher plants or Venus fly-traps successfully, you can grow this orchid too. The blooming flower stalks look lovely mixed in with the reds and purples of mature pitcher plants (Saracenia spp.) I mixed a combination of half well-rotted compost and half sand to create the soil for my orchid pot. During the winter, it sat in a saucer of water in my cool (45 degrees Fahrenheit) greenhouse. It summered in my front water feature, nearly invisible as the drama queen milkweeds dazzled the pollinators with their multitudes of flowers.

But now that the milkweed flowers have morphed into expanding seed pods, my orchids have taken center stage. Given how much they have multiplied, and now knowing that vegetative reproduction is most definitely their thing, I’m thinking I’ll be dividing the orchids in this pot so that I can move some into yet another pot when I’m ready to relocate them back to the greenhouse for the winter. By this time next year, I should have a front water feature in early fall full of winding spires of delicate native orchids. How lovely will that be?

Want some Nodding Ladies-tresses for your garden?

A very reliable little bird tells me these orchids will be available at the NC Botanical Garden’s upcoming Fall Plant Sale. To be sure you get some, I recommend you come on Friday, Oct. 2 between 5:00 p.m. and 7:30 p.m. That sale is open only to members of the Garden, who use their 10% discounts to acquire all the green goodies they want. Plus there’s free food and drink and live music. I’ll be volunteering behind one of the many tables loaded with plants for sale. I hope I’ll see you there!

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