Saturday, June 2, 2012

Showy Lady's-slipper

I made a run out to the legendary Cedar Bog State Memorial this morning, with orchids on my mind. If you haven't been to this iconic natural area, do yourself a favor and pay a visit. The nature center above was erected a few years ago, and serves as the gateway to one of the most biologically rich 487 acres in the state of Ohio.

A boardwalk makes traversing the "bog" easy, and offers vistas of open fen meadows and interesting swampy woodlands. Yes, "fen" meadows - Cedar Bog is actually a fen. Fens are fed by cold groundwater that creates a very specialized growing environment. Thus, many of the plants that grow at Cedar Bog and other fens are rather rare and local, if not outright endangered, at least in Ohio.

The meadow above is hemmed in by white cedar, or arborvitae, Thuja occidentalis. Normally one must travel much further north, such as where I recently was in northern Michigan, to find cedar swamps. Cedar Bog is a glacial relict; Ohio's only remaining example of a boreal habitat that would have been far more prevalent here thousands of years ago.

Soon after entering the "bog", weird plants begin popping up. This is fen indian-plantain, Arnoglossum plantagineum. Betcha can't guess what family it's in. This Ohio rarity is a member of the giant sunflower or composite family, although it looks nothing like daisies, asters, sunflowers or most of the rest of the members of the tribe. This specimen is in full bloom, too.

I was pleased to find one of our rarest plants beginning to flower, the horned bladderwort, Utricularia cornuta. Bladderworts, with some 250 species worldwide, are the biggest group of carnivorous plants. This species, which is known from only one other population in Ohio, grows in saturated marly soil in fen openings. Life in such a substrate is harsh: root zone temperatures are perennially chilly and waterlogged, and the alkalinity is high. The bladderwort compensates by capturing small animal life, from which it extracts proteins and nitrogen. The plant's roots are beset with tiny saclike bladders that trap victims.

The vegetative base of true bogs is Sphagnum moss; in fens, sedges form the dominant vegetation. This little beauty is yellow sedge, Carex flava, another Ohio rarity. Also visible is bottlebrush sedge, Carex lurida, in the right background. Jutting from the lower left corner is a fruiting spike of Cedar Bog's most important sedge, at least in terms of biomass. It is the walking spikerush, Eleocharis rostellata. It forms dense carpets, and typically grows by an arcing habit, with the stem eventually bending over and contacting the ground. A new shoot is sent out at that point, hence the plant "walks".

Quite showy and conspicuous are the fruiting heads of green cottongrass, Eriophorum viridicarinatum, yet another of Cedar Bog's interesting sedges. The little plant emerging from the bottom of the photo is the aptly named fen sedge, Carex sterilis.

But on to the orchids, which are more likely to captivate you.

Here we have a warm-up act for the main show: grass-pink orchid, Calopogon tuberosa. It's a fine looking plant, and was just beginning to flower. The buds of flowers to come can be seen above the open blossom. Grass-pinks have a fascinating method of pollination, and I wrote about that in THIS POST.

Finally, the star of the show - showy lady's-slipper, Cypripedium reginae! Cedar Bog harbors a wonderful population of this state-threatened species, and I caught 'em at just about peak flowering today. These orchids are so large and flashy that it's hard to believe they're real.

Showy lady's-slipper has, I believe, the largest flower of any North American orchid. They are big; about the size of a jumbo chicken egg. We don't have many flowers in which pink and white is the dominant color scheme, which further adds to the orchid's allure.

I probably make it over to Cedar Bog for the blooming of the showy lady's-slippers more years than not, and I believe this is the best that I've ever seen them look. There are seemingly more plants scattered about, and some of the largest are practically shrublike. Exceptional flowering stems can tower to several feet in height. One might guess from the size of the opening in the flower that BIG bugs handle pollination duties. True enough, large bumblebees, beetles, and other insects do enter the flower. But research suggests that it is actually smaller bees that do the majority of successful pollination.

Showy lady's-slipper is quite pubescent, or hairy. Some say that these hairs can cause a punishing dermatitis, similar to poison ivy. I can't attest to that personally, but then I generally don't touch them. Even in my plant collecting days - I have perhaps 9,000 sheets of plants in various museums - I could never bring myself to collect this species.

White-tailed deer apparently aren't above sampling lady's-slippers. A browsed leaf and munched off flowering stalk is visible in the lower right corner of the photo. Hopefully the mammals who are bold enough to snack on these orchids pay dearly for their indiscretions. I would hope that the orchid gods also punish any humans foolish and callous enough to dig any of these plants. Harvesters won't keep these finicky orchids alive very long, anyway.

If you are able, get out to Cedar Bog in the next week or so and see this spectacular plant with your own eyes. And keep in mind that Cedar Bog is interesting and full of life at any season. Finally, please support the Cedar Bog Association! This dedicated group of volunteers oversees the management and operation of the bog, and that's a lot of work. Membership information is HERE.


Jack and Brenda said...

These are beautiful! We saw a few common versions in SMNP this spring, but nothing this nice.

Brent C. Kryda said...

Excellent post which I happily will link to on my blog! I had no idea a cedar fen existed so far south; I had to double check on white and black spruce range maps to see if the same was not true of those species as well, but no such luck.

Auralee said...

Well, I guess I know what I'm doing next Saturday. Jim, what kind of birds can we expect to see there? The web site didn't say much about birds, but I'm always birding wherever I go. Thanks!

Jim McCormac said...

Thanks for your comments, all, and I'm flattered that you mentioned this post on your fine blog, Brent!

Auralee, interesting birds at Cedar Bog. A few I noted yesterday included Yellow-billed Cuckoo, Northern Parula, Yellow-throated Warbler, Rose-breasted Grosbeak, Willow Flycatcher.