Nearly five thousand species of vascular plants have been catalogued in Texas, a large number that reflects the diverse climate and topography of the Lone Star State. Many books and articles for the layperson and professional botanist alike have been devoted to the flora of Texas, but until now, no regional guide to the orchids of Texas has existed. In writing this book, we want first and foremost to share the beauty of these exquisite orchids of Texas. We also want to provide a guide with the most recent information with regard to taxonomy and distribution of orchids in Texas. To achieve both these ends, we have included a liberal number of color photographs, images that we hope will give pleasure and allow even the weekend naturalist to identify these wild orchids and become alert to their typical habitats.
Regional guides to wild orchids, such as those listed in the bibliography, yielded valuable information, but our work would have taken longer without Donovan Correll's monumental works, Flora of Texas, Orchidaceae (1944) and Native Orchids of North America (1950), and Carlyle Luer's Native Orchids of Florida (1972) and Native Orchids of the United States and Canada (1975). We consulted many regional guides to wild orchids; two that were especially helpful to our research on ecology and habitats were Orchids of the Western Great Lakes Region (1987) by Frederick W Case, Jr., and An Introduction to the Ecology of the Illinois Orchidaceae (1974) by Charles Sheviak.
We visited several major university herbariums in Texas to gather information about locations and bloom times. In this project, we are greatly indebted to our friend David Berkshire of Houston, both for his research assistance at the herbariums and for his computer expertise in assembling and analyzing the data.
Except where otherwise noted, all photographs in this book were taken by Joe Liggio. Beginning in 1979, he spent hundreds of hours in the Big Thicket of East Texas and made dozens of trips to the mountains of Trans-Pecos Texas and Big Bend National Park to find and photograph sometimes elusive species of wild orchids. Our descriptions of orchids and their habitats incorporate much of his direct observations in the field.
Worldwide, approximately twenty-five thousand species of wild orchids are known to botanists. A total of fifty-four types of wild orchids grow within the 267,000 square miles of Texas. This includes fifty-two species and two varieties. Admittedly, fifty-four is a modest number compared to the number of species found in Costa Rica, where twelve hundred orchid species can be found in i19,000 square miles. The common notion of orchids is that they grow only in tropical climates such as that of Costa Rica, so it may surprise some readers to learn that wild orchids grow throughout North America, even north of the Arctic Circle. In fact, the state flower of Minnesota is the pink-and-white Lady's slipper orchid (Cypripedium regime), also called the showy Lady's slipper orchid.
One reason Texas has a respectable number of orchid species is that its diverse climate and topography create ideal conditions for orchids that are native to the eastern United States, the southwestern United States, and Mexico. A vast coastal plain that begins around New Jersey on the Atlantic Coast stretches south to Florida. Extending westward along the Gulf Coast into Texas, this coastal plain is covered with rich pine and hardwood forests dotted with swamps, ponds, bogs, savannahs, seepage springs, and meadows, creating a mosaic of habitats that support a large variety of orchids. Many orchid species found along this coastal plain reach their western range limit in Texas.
Although the greatest number of orchid species in Texas—about thirty-six—inhabit the moist forests of East Texas, many species flourish in the moist canyons of the Edwards Plateau and the mountains of TransPecos Texas (¡merson et al. 1975). As you move west and south across Texas, the average annual rainfall diminishes, from nearly 6o inches near the Sabine River in East Texas to less than 8 inches at El Paso in far West Texas. As you move south, annual rainfall drops to about 20 inches in Brownsville. The number of orchid species declines accordingly. Few orchids of the eastern United States reach beyond the Balcones Escarpment of the Edwards Plateau in Central Texas. Most orchids found on the Edwards Plateau are primarily species of the southwestern United States, Chihuahuan Desert, and Mexican Sierra Madre. In arid Trans-Pecos Texas, high mountains give orchids refuge from the desert in cool, damp forests, wooded ravines, and canyons.
Orchids in Texas range from the High Plains of the Panhandle down to the resacas (oxbow lakes) of the lower Rio Grande Valley along the Mexican border. Orchids that grow in the wilds of Texas prefer temperate climates. Although temperate orchids are generally much smaller and less conspicuous than their tropical cousins, their delicate beauty is still worthy of the name "orchid."
Unlike tropical orchids, the vast majority of native North American orchids, including all those native to Texas, are terrestrial, growing with their roots firmly embedded in soil. North America does have a few species of epiphytic, or tree-dwelling orchids, but for the most part they are restricted to tropical Florida. (Of the terrestrial orchids, scientists know of two species that grow totally underground: Rhizanthella gardneri and Cryptanthemis slateri, both in Australia.)
Loss of habitat is by far the greatest threat to orchids and other rare plants in Texas. When Texas was a vast, mostly unpopulated wilderness, many orchids were undoubtedly much more common. Today, much of this original wilderness has been altered by farming, ranching, industry, and residential development, so many orchid habitats have disappeared. Some orchid species that are adapted to special environments, such as the southern Lady's slipper (Cypripedium kentuckiense), have all but vanished along with their habitats. However, a few weedy orchids, such as spring ladies tresses (Spiranthes vernalis) and the nodding ladies tresses (S. cernua), can adapt to a wide range of habitats and may be more common today than they were in the past.
Although many famous orchid haunts visited by botanists in the past are now gone, a surprising number of good orchid habitats remain in Texas—not by accident, but as the result of efforts of a multitude of dedicated Texans. For many years, Texas conservationists have worked to save such treasures as Big Bend National Park, Guadalupe Mountains National Park, the Big Thicket National Preserve, and East Texas wilderness areas in the national forests. Also, the U.S. Forest Service maintains many special habitats in the Texas national forests as botanical areas, scenic areas, and research natural areas. In these areas, a variety of rare, delicate wildflowers and orchids thrive. Many state parks and wildlife management areas administered by Texas Parks & Wildlife Department also preserve important orchid habitats. Still other orchid habitats are protected by The Nature Conservancy and other private conservation organizations. Unfortunately, important habitats for several rare orchids, including the snowy orchid (Platanthera nivea), Chapman's orchid (P. chapmanii), the crested fringed orchid (P. cristata), and the giant spiral orchid (Spiranthes longilabris), remain underrepresented in preserves today. Without protection, these orchids, along with their habitats, may soon vanish from the Texas landscape.
Another threat to our native orchids comes from a surprising source: orchid enthusiasts. Regrettably, some people dig up wild orchids and remove them from their natural habitats, even though most species of wild orchids are almost impossible to transplant successfully (Luer 1972, Koopowitz and Kaye 1983, Homoya 1993, Smith 1993). Nearly every forest ranger or nature guide has one or more stories about pointing out an extremely endangered plant to a visiting garden club or similar group, only to come upon members of the very same group digging the plant up the next day.
Some may believe they cause no harm to native orchid species when they buy them from commercial growers. Native orchids are offered by some commercial nurseries with the assurances that none have been collected from the wild. However, many times, wild-collected plants that remain in a nursery for only one growing season are then sold under claims of being "nursery grown" (a practice called "nursery-laundering").
Threats to wild orchids do not come just from orchid hobbyists and commercial growers. Unenlightened botanists who collect specimens for herbariums can also contribute to the decline of rare orchid species. Although it is important to document new locations for rare species, all unnecessary collecting should be avoided, especially when only a few individual plants are found. Although collecting has little adverse effect on common orchid species, it can have a devastating effect on species already in peril. Alternatives to collecting, for purposes of scientific documentation, include photographs, sketches, measurements, and detailed notes.
In the foreword to Field Guide to Orchids of North America (Williams and Williams 1983), Roger Tory Peterson argues, "In today's world few orchids can afford the attrition imposed by the vasculum [carrying case] and the plant press."
The Future of Orchids in Texas
The only way to ensure the future survival of wild orchids is to preserve their habitats. Many areas in Texas have already been set aside for national and state parks, wilderness areas, and wildlife refuges. These areas will require careful management and continued stewardship to ensure preservation of orchids and other wild plants. Although such places contribute greatly to the preservation of many species, we still need additional parks and preserves if we are to succeed in saving several of our more rare and threatened orchids and wildflowers. In some of the most significant conservation work in recent years, the Endangered Resource Branch of the Texas Parks & Wildlife Department has worked closely with The Texas Nature Conservancy to identify habitats that need to be preserved. The Texas Nature Conservancy—a private, nonprofit organization funded by contributions from individuals, foundations, and corporations—tries to purchase sites that are home to endangered or threatened species. Government and industry can also help preserve habitats through creative management of easements and rights-of-way associated with highways, railroads, pipelines, and power lines. Such management would include conducting extensive botanical surveys, mowing at proper times (which can actually benefit many sun-loving orchids), and eliminating use of herbicides. A cooperative effort between conservationists, governments, and private business will go far toward preserving our wild orchids.
We also need more legal protection for our priceless native orchids and other rare wildflowers. Today, the only wild orchid in Texas that is specifically protected by law is the Navasota ladies tresses orchid, declared an endangered species in 1982.
The grass pink orchid has from two to ten deep pink flowers, each about 1 1/2 inches across, that bloom in a slow succession up the stem, so that the same stalk usually bears buds and open flowers simultaneously. In Texas this species blooms from early May to early July starting nearly a month later than the smaller and much rarer Oklahoma grass pink orchid (C. oklahomensis). The colorful lip, held uppermost on the flower, is bearded with yellow, orange, white, and pink ball-tipped hairs. A distinctive circular white spot that marks the heart-shaped upper portion of the lip distinguishes this species from C. oklahomensis. A rare albino form of C. tuberosus with pure white flowers is sometimes found in the Big Thicket area in the Pineywoods.
This is probably the best-known orchid in East Texas. In spring and early summer, it is a familiar sight among sphagnum moss in hillside seepage bogs, in wetland pine savannahs, and on the edges of baygalls. It also occurs, although quite rarely, in wet depressions on sandy prairies in Chambers County in the Gulf Prairies and Marshes region. The grass pink orchid thrives on moist to wet acidic sand. It often grows along with carnivorous plants such as sundew (Drosera spp.), butterwort (Pinguicula pumila), bladderwort (Utricularia spp.), and pitcher plant (Sarracenia alata). Wildflowers growing nearby may include cross-leaf milkwort (Polygala cruciata), yellow savannah milkwort (P. ramosa), meadow beauty (Rhexia petiolata), pine-woods rose-gentian (Sabatia gentianoides), Kansas gay feather (Liatris pycnostachya), ten-angle pipewort (Eriocaulon decangulare), and Texas tickseed (Coreopsis linifolia) (Orzell 1990). C. tuberosus is pollinated by bumblebees (Bombes spp.) and leafcutter bees (Megachile spp.) (Calling and Catling 1991).
The grass pink orchid was once abundant in the wetland pine savannahs of the Big Thicket region. However, many of its habitats have been destroyed by drainage, development, and the creation of pine plantations. Notable populations of the grass pink orchid are now protected in wetland pine savannahs and hillside seepage bogs in the Big Thicket National Preserve and in the Angelina National Forest (Upland Island Wilderness Area). In Angelina National Forest, the U.S. Forest Service also protects several grass pink habitats as Research Natural Areas and Botanical Areas. Long-term survival of this orchid depends on periodic fires to control invading shrubs that would eventually shade it out.
The species name, tuberosus, is from a Latin word meaning "swollen or tuberous," referring to the appearance of the roots. Older references refer to this species as Calopogon pulchellus (a Latin word for "beautiful").
Other Common Names: swamp pink, rose wings
Pineywoods, Post Oak Savannah, and Gulf Prairies and Marshes
southern Ontario, Quebec, and Newfoundland; all states east of the Mississippi River and all states touching the west bank of the Mississippi River; Iowa, Oklahorna,and Texas