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Tiptoe through the ... orchids?

Orchids are Missouri’s best kept botanical secret.

Thirty-six species of orchids are found in Missouri, compared to just three native species in Hawaii.

While most of the 15,000 species of orchids in the world are found in the tropics, Missouri has orchids throughout the state, from its northern prairies and plains, to its Ozark woods and river valleys.

“Most people have no idea,” said Allison Vaughn, natural resource steward with the Missouri Department of Natural Resources. “Even though they are widespread, most people go their entire lives without seeing an orchid in its native landscape.”

Often, those native landscapes are in Missouri’s state parks, Vaughn said, including some surprising ones, such as Crowder in the northwest corner of the state. Truman and Pomme de Terre are known primarily for their lakes, but they have orchids, too.

“Most people think of slipper orchids as primarily an Ozark woodland plant,” she said. “But the stronghold for yellow lady-slipper orchids, for example, is in the northern part of the state. When I first moved to Missouri, and was kind of poking around up there, I was amazed.”

Protecting the plants

There are three main reasons why orchids remain a mystery to most Missourians.

Many species of orchids are small and inconspicuous in the landscape. The lady-slippers, which bloom in early spring, are the showiest, growing up to three feet tall. The state’s seven species of ladies’ tresses, which bloom from August into November, are the most commonly encountered, especially at parks with glades that get prescribed burns.

But other orchids are diminutive, and may lack attention-grabbing color.

At Cuivre River State Park, naturalist Bruce Schuette led a short hike to a spot where yellow lady-slippers were blooming in the woods. But when he later pointed to an early coral root orchid on the forest floor, the delicate purplish stem of tiny flowers was nearly invisible amid the leaf litter.

And while orchids are widespread throughout the state, they are not common and rarely abundant. At Hawn State Park, superintendent Ed Schott gave directions to a brilliant bouquet of yellow lady-slippers in bloom.

But the ensuing 10-mile hike on the Whispering Pine Trail through Hawn failed to yield another orchid.

Then there’s the fact that naturalists and other park personnel are protective of the orchids.

“Orchid populations are not advertised because we don’t want them to be damaged from trampling or digging,” said Schuette of Cuivre River, which boasts 11 species of orchids.

Look but don’t touch

There are two excellent reasons, Vaughn said,  for admiring orchids in the wild, but leaving them alone.

“Orchid roots are attached to fungal threads underneath the soil,” she said. “If you try to dig up an orchid, say to put it in your garden, they won’t live, they won’t grow. As soon as you break that thread to the fungus, the orchid will die.”

The second reason is Missouri Revised Statute 577.073, which calls for a year in the county jail and/or a fine of up to $1,000 for anyone who might “cut, prune, pick or deface or injure in any matter the flowers, trees, shrubs or any other flora growing on the land or in the water of any state park.”

“To allow other people to enjoy them, all the wildflowers are protected,” said Schuette, the Cuivre River naturalist. “But that’s especially true of orchids. They really need protection if they’re going to continue to be here.”

Managing the ecosystem

State parks try to manage their land to encourage biodiversity in the ecosystem. A routine of prescribed burns mimics the natural process that restores native wildflowers and grasses, and controls the growth of red cedars and exotic invaders.

“We’ve been tracking the numbers, and woodlands managed by fire certainly have good populations of orchids,” Schuette said. “The fire does not hurt them at all; they are really doing well in the areas we’re burning.”

While park personnel have recorded only an isolated incident or two of orchid vandalism by humans, they do stress the importance of controlling deer numbers, especially at parks bordered by development.

Too many deer can decimate plant populations, including orchids. Fewer plants mean fewer pollinators, and fewer insects means fewer birds, as the intricate web of life gets out of balance.

Brian Wilcox, naturalist at Meramec State Park, which has at least 10 species of orchids, pointed to an accidental discovery that is helping orchid numbers. He said the park’s maintenance crews cut back on mowing because of a decline in revenues.

“There was an explosion of ladies’ tresses in those unmowed areas,” Wilcox said. “They popped up everywhere.”

Missing jewels

Vaughn pointed out that orchids can remain dormant underground, then re-appear after years.

“That’s another reason that we discourage people from digging,” she said. “You never know what you’re going to damage.”

Justin Thomas, director of the Institute of Botanical Training and a member of the Missouri Native Plant Society, discovered the state’s 36th species, a Southern twayblade orchid, in southeast Missouri in the spring of 2009. The species had not been documented previously in the state.

Biologist Thomas Nagel of the Missouri Department of Conservation was visiting an old cemetery in the northern part of the state last summer when he found the imperiled eastern prairie-fringed orchid that had not been seen in Missouri for nearly 60 years.

Vaughn is on the look out for another missing species – the small whorled pogonia, which was last seen in Bollinger County in 1897.

“Find that again in Missouri and it will be ‘the shot heard ‘round the world,’” she said.

The naturalists suggest that Missourians wanting to see orchids in bloom look in spring and fall, when the showiest species appear. They also recommend the guide Missouri Orchids by Bill Summers, which is available through the Missouri Department of Conservation.

In his book, Summers gives yet another reason to protect, and preserve, Missouri’s orchids.

“To suddenly come upon a colony of lady-slipper orchids in full bloom is a sight to be remembered always,” he writes. “They will hold you spellbound until you suddenly realize that they are real and that nature, once again, is the perfect artist.”