Nature Notes: Where the wild orchids are

Published 5:22 pm Friday, June 30, 2023

Getting your Trinity Audio player ready...

By Kelly Bahl

Outreach Naturalist

Most Minnesotans know our state flower, the showy lady’s slippers, but not many know that lady’s slippers are a type of orchid. In fact, the Gopher State is home to over 40 different species of native orchids. Out of those species there are 13 species that are in full bloom in the month of July. Here at the nature center, we have had history with two different orchid species.

Email newsletter signup

Historically the nature center was home to a nice population of Greater Yellow Lady’s-slipper, which is one of the most common orchids found in north America in the wild. The plant reaches about 18 inches tall while the vibrant pouch like flowers reach up to two inches in length with curled spindly petals mimicking laces for a shoe. This beautiful native was once an abundant show-stopper of our forest back in the 80s but was coveted by locals who wanted them in their yard and our population started to dwindle as patrons came and dug them up. By the mid to late 90s our entire population of Yellow Lady’s-slipper was no more. 

The Jay C. Hormel Nature Center is still home to another variety of orchid that is found far into our property but makes the prairie it’s home instead of the woods. The Tubercled Rein Orchid (Platanthera flava var. herbiola) has tiny yellowish green flowers that grow up a bract from the base of the plant. The orchid can reach a height of almost two feet but can be tricky to spot among the tall grasses of prairie where it calls home. Back in 1984 the Tubercled Rein Orchid was designated as a state endangered species, but with the discovery of a wider, though scarce, population the species got downgraded to a threatened species in 2013. We find blooms of this orchid during the beginning of July.  

The habitat for all our native orchids is declining and these plants are very sensitive to environmental changes. Meaning native orchids are a great indicator to the health of an ecosystem. Many of the almost 50 species of orchid have a parasitic relationship with fungal mycelium which runs under the soil. The orchids will feed off the fungus to get its nutrients to the point where the plants cannot survive without it. If the habitat gets disturbed and the fungal growth gets interrupted, the orchids lose their food source. Even the seeds of our native orchids don’t have any substance to them at all and depend on some fungal friends. No casing for protection, no extra food attached, and they are super fine particle-like seeds called dust seeds. The almost microscopic seeds are housed in a seed capsule that could contain thousands of seeds without any food to start growing. Once they hit the ground they’ll try and utilize any fungal relationship they can find to grow into a new plant. The success rate in the wild is low and is not much better with the help of human intervention. Scientists have started to study and propagate wild native orchids to help with the conservation of as many species as possible, but they do not have a lot of information, experience, nor research out there about our non-tropical orchids. 

As a reminder to anyone who enjoys the outdoors and especially finding unique and beautiful flowers wherever they go, to only take pictures back with you! These types of plants are sensitive to their environment and play a larger part in the entire ecosystem, as is true with all native plants. If you end up finding any orchids during your time at the nature center, consider yourself lucky. We hope you get the chance.  

July Events at the Nature Center

Tuesday: Interpretive Center Closed

Thursday: Senior Special, 10 a.m.; Family Program, 1 p.m.; Nature Play Free Activities, 11-4 p.m. 

July 12: Volunteer Outdoor Work Party- 3:30-5 p.m.

July 14: Cedar River Astronomy Club 8-10 p.m.  

July 15: Sola Fide Observatory Open House, 9:30-11:00 pm 

July 22: Dammen Family Fun Day, 9:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.; Duck Race Down Dobbins, 1 p.m.

July 29: Sola Fide Observatory Open House, 9:30-11 p.m. 

July 30: Interpretive Center Closed