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  • Writer's pictureOrchid Muse

Native orchids, carnivorous plants, and fens, oh my!

If you ever need a truly magical experience, visit a floating sphagnum fen in northern Wisconsin. I was lucky enough to be shown one by a friend (a rad-ass botany professor) on an early July day when it felt like the entire earth was throbbing with life. It was an environment I had often imagined, but never experienced, and it exceeded my every expectation.

Pogonia ophioglossoides, the lovely Rose Pogonia.

Rose Pogonia has long been on my orchid bucket list. While it was smaller than I expected--field guides report that this species can differ dramatically in size and shape--its cuteness rivals almost anything I've seen in the wild.

As the image above shows, it grows in a dense sphagnum peat, but likes it best just at the edge of the floating peat mat. (This location had the elements of both a fen and a raised bog.) Positioned here, the Rose Pogonia gets a bit more nutrients through the circulating water than it otherwise would in sheer peat. It multiplies through underground (well, under-floating-sphagnum) roots. Bees pollinate this bodacious beauty, visually attracted to its hot-pink shaggy lip ("pogonia" means beard in Greek)--one of the colors that best absorb ultraviolet light (and that insects can see).

Because Pogonia ophioglossoides is so fond of living lakeside, it's a bit difficult to get a good picture of it with an iPhone--I felt I was tempting fate by nearing the less-dense edge of the bog. I had to move slowly, both because my boots sank into the peat a few inches with every step, but also because the bog is literally floating on water, and very bouncy. The closer you get to the edge, the more water is rushing around, in, and through the fen. One false move and that camera phone would be a goner (it was a warm day--I wasn't too worried about taking a dip myself).

Calopogon tuberosus, the Grass Pink Orchid. Hey girl, upside-down looks good on you!

Another gorgeous pink orchid that I met in the same fen in a small lake on a sandy outwash plain was the Tuberous Grass Pink. This orchid looks delicate, but brings serious game: Calopogon tuberosus is one of the few flowers on earth that physically move its pollinators. A small bee lands on the hairy yellow lip--it looks like it's covered in pollen, but surprise! it's not--and the lip hinges, turning the bee upside down onto the column, smearing its back with the orchid stigma's sticky goo. The bee freaks out, rubs its back onto the secret real pollinia, and flies away. It's understood that bees don't fall for the Grass Pink's trick too many times--the bee doesn't have access to the pollen, given it's stuck on its back, and an unassuming orchid suddenly pulling a WWF-style wrestling move on you has to be unnerving. But I like to think that orchids, sneaky as they are, provide their pollinators with the rides of their lives--and that's gotta be worth something!

Abundant Grass Pinks indicate high-quality surface and ground water. Hooray for Bayfield County, Wisconsin!

The Grass Pink Orchid was quite literally everywhere we walked on the raised bog. Acres of them, offering up a slight raspberry scent. Are you beguiled yet? Because I have more.

Orchids and pitcher plants are friends.

I would be remiss if I didn't also detail the amazing carnivorous plants living side-by-side with orchids, enjoying the sun and sphagnum. Confession: I have a long-standing love affair with pitcher plants, especially Sarracenia purpurea.

Sarracenia purpurea is a predatory plant of many names: purple (or northern) pitcher plant, side-saddle flower, and turtle socks are some of the most evocative ones.

As a historian of the early-national United States, Sarracenia purpurea has deep meaning for me. William Bartram, my all-time favorite naturalist and early national dude, wrote of it often in his Travels, one of the most astounding and romantic and scientific documents of the period. The pitcher plant seemed to signify America to him--its richness, its wilds, its sickening threat. Read it: I promise you'll love it too.

Students in my environmental history classes know Billy Bartram well--his political connections rivaled his botanical ones, and made him a key figure in constructing early America's concepts of nature and nationhood. He was also one weird guy, as evidenced in his oddly-constructed (and highly symbolic) still-life drawing-cum-landscape study below. So, to come upon a gigantic floating field of the same purple pitcher plants Bartram once waxed poetic about was at once a natural history lesson, a botanical Shangri-La, as well as held deep historical resonance for me.

Shall we also inspect the sundews? We encountered several Drosera rotundifolia, little glinting rubies staring up at us. Come closer, they beckoned. I won't hurt you, they said.

Hello, you precious death traps!

You're such cute little insect murderers!

Fens are amazingly diverse places. There are several other species of plants I won't touch on, but here's some gratuitous Northern Blue Flag Iris (Iris versicolor) for you:

As we were leaving the fen, we decided to stop and hunt for blueberries (because, summer! and because, BLUEBERRIES!) in a sandy pine barrens that was close by. As we were stuffing our faces with native antioxidants (sure, that's why we were eating them), my botanist friend called out that we had an orchid trifecta day--she had spotted Northern Slender Ladies' Tresses.

Spiranthes lacera (Northern Slender Ladies' Tresses) in a field of blueberries. While no orchids were harmed, those blueberries weren't long for this world.

The Slender Ladies' Tresses orchid inflorescence spirals around its column, as if twirling its flouncy little skirts. We found several orchids in a few-meter area, most growing solo, along with a few that clumped, three to a bundle. That made three types of orchids, multiple carnivorous plants and other flowers, and fistfuls of blueberries to end the day. It was one for the record-books. (And the memory bank, come February on Lake Superior.)

A transcendent field of Grass Pink orchids.

I'll admit something: although I have lived in the midwest for more than 15 years, I still miss the wild beauty of the western Sierra Nevada mountains, where I grew up. But on this day, as I wandered through the fen, mostly looking down at the amazing native-Wisconsin plants, I also looked up and it felt like home. The carpet of wildflowers stretched right to the edge of my sightline, abutting the coniferous forest, the perfect blue sky rimmed above. I was reminded of my grandmothers, my youth on Donner Summit, and all was well. It was a rare moment wherein I felt that indeed I have made all the right choices with my life.

Here's hoping the same for you. Happy fen-finding!

Note: Kim & Cindy Risen's Orchids of the Northwoods (2010) was immensely valuable in the field. It and Welby R. Smith's Native Orchids of Minnesota (2012) were helpful in writing this post. Any unending thanks to my colleague and friend in Northland College's biology department!


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