Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Spiranthes Orchids at Blue Jay Barrens

Nearly a month ago, I had the pleasure of visiting Blue Jay Barrens. Some of you surely recognize that name. Blue Jay Barrens is a large tract of land in Adams County that's owned and managed by Steve Willson. If you've heard of this place, chances are you've read about it on Steve's wonderful blog entitled Blue Jay Barrens. If you haven't checked out his blog, I highly suggest you do. I've been meaning to make a post on some of the amazing things I saw there, but the past few weeks have been crazy for me. I've had to finish up my summer lab work, as well as move back in to Ohio University and deal with the insanity that is the start of a new semester. Anyway, I now have a little bit of time to write, so better late than never!

Blue Jay Barrens
As I said before, Blue Jay Barrens is a privately owned tract of land that resides in the northern part of Adams County. I've been an avid reader of Steve's blog for a few years now, and he recently reached out to me and asked if I wanted a tour. The answer to a question like that is always yes. I came down on August 13th and Steve gave me a wonderful tour that lasted about 6 hours. He has just over 100 acres, and we saw only about half of it that day. The number of interesting plants and other goodies that I saw that day was simply astounding. Blue Jay Barrens lies in the incredible and unique Adams County, my personal favorite county in Ohio. Adams County is perhaps best known for its globally rare cedar glades (also called cedar barrens) that contain many dozens of rare plant species for Ohio. An example of an Adams County cedar barren is Lynx Prairie. Blue Jay Barrens is a little different though; before Steve bought it in 1985, it was actually farmland. Decades of farming and bad land use practices had eroded essentially all of the topsoil, leaving the land desolate. Slowly but surely, native plants began to come back and soil is slowly being replaced. Adams County, luckily, has many native plant species that can thrive on thin, rocky, and dry soils, most of which are prairie species. Seeds of these hardy species naturally made their way from neighboring areas and began to recolonize the area. Fast forward to the present and you have a beautiful prairie environment with Red Cedars (which are managed by Steve) that dot the landscape.

Spiranthes Orchids Ohio
I was able to visit at a great time in the year. Several Spiranthes orchid species were in bloom, and Spiranthes also happens to be my absolute favorite genus of orchids. Lucky me! Spiranthes is a genus (the classification category right before species) of orchids that mainly calls open areas such as prairies home. There are 9 species that can be found in Ohio, with 3 of those species being state-listed as either Potentially Threatened or Threatened. They're generally small plants, with their white inflorescence (the flowering part of the plant) often being overlooked among the tall grasses they tend to grow in. To give you an idea, look at the photo above. There's a single Spiranthes individual growing on the right side. The good news is, once you intitially find one, your eyes get a "search image" and you start seeing them pretty often. Steve and I saw a few dozen blooming individuals that day, and each one was a treat. 

Spiranthes vernalis
One of the main reasons I adore these orchids is their shape. Spiranthes orchids flower in either a single or double spiral. This individual shows a single spiral really well. This is a Spring Ladies'-Tresses, Spiranthes vernalis. First, a note about the common name of the Spiranthes. I will be using "Ladies'-Tresses" which is what the Ohio Department of Natural Resources uses. You will also see some places using "Lady's Tresses," "Ladies-Tresses," or some other similar name. A tress is a long lock of a woman's hair, and these flowers take on the name Ladies'-Tresses as they resemble a braided lock of hair. As common names are wont to do, the Spring Ladies'-Tresses does not bloom in the Spring, except when they do. The issue here is that in the southern states (where the common name stems from), this species actually does bloom in the Spring. However, the farther north you travel, the later this species blooms. So although the common name is due to its blooming habits in southern states, this species actually blooms in late Summer or early Fall here in Ohio. It blooms as late as October once you get into New England! 

Spiranthes vernalis
A closeup of the flowers on the Spring Ladies'-Tresses, with a beetle guest.
The identification of ladies'-tresses can be difficult. In Ohio, you can often narrow it down to 2 or 3 species depending on your location and time of year, and then you have to start getting into the tiny details to separate them. I am relatively new to plants, so I always like to double check my ID's with the more knowledgeable members of the Facebook group Ohio's Wildflowers and Flora, which is a really wonderful group. Often the flowers, and specifically the labellum (or lip), have some characteristic feature to help nail the identification. In the Spring Ladies'-Tresses, the labellum often has a yellowish-tinge, as you can see in the photo above. An uncommon plant here in Ohio, the Spring Ladies'-Tresses is confined to only 8 counties in the southern tip of Ohio.

Spiranthes tuberosa
Next we have a much smaller species. This is the Little Ladies'-Tresses, Spiranthes tuberosa. This dainty species is also an inhabitant of dry prairies and meadows like the previous Spring Ladies'-Tresses (although they can be found in other habitats as well), but this species is generally much smaller in height. This individual was probably less than a foot high, while the Spring Ladies'-Tresses we saw were about 2 feet or so tall.

Spiranthes tuberosa
As I previously mentioned, the labellum of many Spiranthes orchids holds a clue as to what species it is. In this case, the labellum is pure white, while the previous Spring Ladies'-Tresses had a labellum with a yellow tinge. This pure white labellum is an easy way to quickly identify Spiranthes tuberosa. The Little Ladies'-Tresses has a decently wide range in Ohio. In fact, it pretty much has a straight distribution line from Adams County in Southern Ohio up to Ashtabula County in extreme Northeastern Ohio that's about two or three counties wide. You can see a range map here.

Spiranthes lacera var. gracilis
This is the Slender Ladies'-Tresses, Spiranthes lacera var. gracilis, which was last Spiranthes species we saw that day. I should note that ladies'-tresses are often a hard genus of flowers to photograph. They're generally short and very thin. This gives your camera's autofocus quite a challenge many times. The main issue is that they are often set among similarly-sized grasses and assorted other flowers. As a result, a camera's autofocus has a hard time deciding what exactly you're trying to focus on. If you add a breeze, good luck. Luckily this day was quite still, for the most part at least. There was one instance where I was trying to focus on an individual while there was an intermittent breeze. As soon as my camera would focus on the Spiranthes, a breeze would come and move the flower out of focus, and my camera would then decide to focus on a random piece of grass. Cue the process of trying to refocus on the flower, only to have the process repeat again a few seconds later.

Spiranthes lacera var. gracilis
The defining characteristic of the Slender Ladies'-Tresses is the green spot on the labellum, which you can see above. If you noticed in the previous paragraph, I said this was Spiranthes lacera var. gracilis. You might notice that this isn't the "normal" type of scientific name with only a genus and species part; there's also a "var. gracilis." This means that it is the gracilis variety of Spiranthes lacera. A variety is essentially a distinct type within a species. S. lacera var. gracilis is also known as the Southern Slender Ladies'-Tresses. The other variety is S. lacera var. lacera, also called the Northern Slender Ladies'-Tresses. Andrew Gibson, the blogger at The Buckeye Botanist, helped me on the variety part. He said "The best way to differentiate the two [varieties] is by the presence of basal leaves at anthesis. Variety gracilis' basal leaves are gone while var. lacera's are still there during flowering. Additionally, var. gracilis is a single rank of flowers in a tight spiral around the stem; var. lacera's flowers are more or less secund and all to one side of the stem and hardly spiraled." He also pointed out that var. lacera hasn't been found in Ohio so far, although he believes it is probably somewhere in extreme northern Ohio.

My trip to Blue Jay Barrens was jam-packed with exciting species, and hopefully I'll have some more time to make at least another post on it. These three orchids, which were all lifers for me, bring me up to 14 orchid species for my life list out of the 47 species in Ohio.

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