Spiranthes are a group of orchids which are pan-global (around the world) in their distribution, and are commonly referred to as Ladies’ Tresses. The different plants and flowers (different species) are very similar in each , and it can be difficult to tell them apart without taking a very close look at the flowers, or even taking them apart. Most of the plants have white flowers, sometimes with a bit of green, sometimes yellow, but there are a few exceptions with red flowers. Regardless of species, they all have small flowers arranged in a spiral which twists its way along the length of the inflorescence (flower spike). This twist is what ‘Spiranthes’ refers to.
In Canada we can easily find Spiranthes romanzoffiana in many locations, and it is the only species to be found in Newfoundland making identification there very easy!! The actual range for this species includes every province and territory in Canada, Alaska, south to California, eastern Siberia, and even Ireland and islands in the Hebrides. It was originallyinally described while Alaska was still under the control of Tsarist Russia, and was named for Count Nicolas Romanzoff (1754-1826), a Russian Minister of State, by Adalbert von Chamisso.
Locally known as Hooded Ladies’ Tresses from the shape of the flower, the inflorescence is composed of 3 or 4 vertical columns of flowers that twist around the stem. This stem can be short in very harsh conditions to a height of over 20cm where growth is more favourable. If you look closely at the lip of the flower, you can see that it is violin shaped, helping the identification. When you are that close you may be able to smell the light almond fragrance as well. Unfortunately where we were it was too windy to be able to smell much beyond the damp earth.
At first glance it seems that it should be easy to find, especially since many of the books describe it as wide ranging. It is important to understand that wide ranging and being easy to find are very different. Many times we found lots of the plants in certain areas (locally abundant), and then there would be nothing if we went 20m or so away. As it turns out, Spiranthes romanzoffiana is specific in its requirements making it turn up in surprisingly narrow areas. It will grow in meadows and clearing in the woods, as well as in roadside gravel and right along the coast. It is usually in bright sun, sometimes in a grassy meadow, but not often in shady areas. Most important, however, are areas where the water seeps just below the surface. At times, the water will form a film over the gravel layer, and you can see the sheen in the sun. In these very tough areas of gravel and bright sun, the plants tend to be stunted.
All places where we found this remarkable plant were locally wet, boggy or had water seeping through the ground. This is very important if you want to grow Spiranthes at home in the garden. They require a very moist mixture, but also one that is very coarse, similar to many rock garden plants. The one which you see here ( a related species, Spiranthes cernua) is planted in a very gritty mix, and watered every 3 days in the house. Normally we would see it going into dormancy now, but it has decided to start growing new rosettes so I will keep watering it and giving it bright light. These plants are available from a few nurseries, but please check that they are propagated plants. PLEASE DO NOT REMOVE THEM FROM THE WILD AND PLEASE DO NOT BUY COLLECTED PLANTS NO MATTER HOW TEMPTING IT MAY BE.
– Jay Norris
For further reading:
The Orchids of Bruce and Grey Counties, Ontario
The Canadian Field Naturalist, Vol III No 1, Jan-Mar 1997
Scott, P.J, and Black,D; Wildflowers of Newfoundland and Labrador, 2006
Munden, Carl; Native Orchids of Nova Scotia A Field Guide; 2001
Ames Acheson et al; Orchids of Manitoba, 2005
Williams John G.; Field Guide to Orchids of North America, 1983
Brown, Paul M; Ladies’ Tresses in your Pocket, 2008
Brown, Paul M.; Wild Orchids of the Northeastern United States A Field Guide, 1997
Brown, Paul M.; Wild Orchids of the Canadian MAritimes and Northern Great Lakes Region, 2006