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Everything You Need to Know About North American Native Orchids

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Everything You Need to Know About North American Native Orchids

June 1, 2018

Orchids are most often associated with tropical paradises and exotic climes. But did you know that you can also find orchids in your own backyard? Or in local wild habitats, to be more precise. Unbeknown to many, North America boasts about 250 species of native orchids. Alas, due to habitat destruction and poaching, approximately half of these rare beauties are endangered or threatened in their native environments.

To learn more about wild orchids and what we can do to protect these native treasures, we turned again to our friends at the New England Wild Flower Society, which is working in partnership with the North American Orchid Conservation Center, an organization founded by the Smithsonian Institute and the U.S. Botanic Garden, for the preservation of native orchids.

Read on for everything you need to know about these rare beauties.

What is a North American native orchid?

Found in woodlands throughout Canada and the US, a Calypso bulbosa var. occidentalis, or western fairy slipper orchid, was captured by photographer and author Jim Fowler, in Oregon. One of the best ways to get a sense of the stunning variety of North America&#8\2\17;s native orchid species is to visit Jim&#8\2\17;s Flickr gallery.
Above: Found in woodlands throughout Canada and the US, a Calypso bulbosa var. occidentalis, or western fairy slipper orchid, was captured by photographer and author Jim Fowler, in Oregon. One of the best ways to get a sense of the stunning variety of North America’s native orchid species is to visit Jim’s Flickr gallery.

Long before the Pilgrims came, indigenous members of the Orchidaceae family could be found across North America and Canada, in wild habitats, including woodlands, prairies, and wetlands. The best-known North American wild orchid is the lady’s slipper, Cypripedium orchids, of which there are more than 45 species across the northern hemisphere.

Where can I find North American native orchids?

This rare Platanthera blephariglottis, a northern white fringed orchid, was photographed on Long Island, New York, by Jim Fowler, the author of several books on North American native orchids.
Above: This rare Platanthera blephariglottis, a northern white fringed orchid, was photographed on Long Island, New York, by Jim Fowler, the author of several books on North American native orchids.

Native orchids exist in every US state and much of Canada. To find native orchids in your region, contact your local native plant society or botanic garden and ask if any are in the local collection. A botanic garden also may have lectures or sponsor field trips to help you identify wild orchids on your own.

In addition, the North American Orchid Conservation Center has a comprehensive database: Go Orchids allows you to search for wild orchids by specific species or region. To use the regional database, simply enter a state or province; you may be surprised to learn how many native orchids can be found nearby. For example, when I entered my home state of Massachusetts, 48 native orchids species popped up. From the state list, individual species pages give detailed information about each plant, including when and where they can be found.

Epipactis gigantea, the stream orchid or chatterbox, can be found from British Columbia south to Arizona into Mexico, and east to Texas. Photograph by Andrey Zharkikh via Flickr.
Above: Epipactis gigantea, the stream orchid or chatterbox, can be found from British Columbia south to Arizona into Mexico, and east to Texas. Photograph by Andrey Zharkikh via Flickr.

Why are native orchids threatened?

Native to the South Central US, Calopogon oklahomensis, the Oklahoma Grass Pink, &#8\2\20;is considered vulnerable and appears to have been extirpated from much of its historic range,&#8\2\2\1; according to Go Orchids. This image by Jim Fowler was taken during a visit to Little Rock, Arkansas, home of Carl Slaughter, author of Wild Orchids of Arkansas.
Above: Native to the South Central US, Calopogon oklahomensis, the Oklahoma Grass Pink, “is considered vulnerable and appears to have been extirpated from much of its historic range,” according to Go Orchids. This image by Jim Fowler was taken during a visit to Little Rock, Arkansas, home of Carl Slaughter, author of Wild Orchids of Arkansas.

To propagate and survive, most orchids rely on highly specialized pollinators and fungi that can only be found in their native habitats. For this reason, they are extremely vulnerable to habitat destruction and climate change. “Canaries in the coal mine,” is how Dennis Whigham, a senior botanist at the Smithsonian Institute, describes them.

Additionally, just like their foreign counterparts, native orchids are highly prized by private and commercial collectors, and therefore fall victim to poaching. For this reason, it is illegal to harvest most orchids in the wild.

As the name suggests, tall and slender Platanthera stricta or bog orchids grow in wet habitats from Alaska to California and east to Wyoming. Photograph courtesy of the National Park Service via Flickr.
Above: As the name suggests, tall and slender Platanthera stricta or bog orchids grow in wet habitats from Alaska to California and east to Wyoming. Photograph courtesy of the National Park Service via Flickr.

What can I do to help protect North American orchids?

Distributed throughout Central and South America, Trichocentrum undulatum, also known as a spotted mule eared orchid, is threatened in Florida, its only US habitat. Photograph courtesy of Jim Fowler via Flickr.
Above: Distributed throughout Central and South America, Trichocentrum undulatum, also known as a spotted mule eared orchid, is threatened in Florida, its only US habitat. Photograph courtesy of Jim Fowler via Flickr.
  • Educate yourself:
  • Volunteer: Most native plant societies rely on volunteers to help with research and conservation efforts. Many also have native seed banks that rely on people throughout the region to help responsibly collect wild seeds. (Note: Make sure you get fully trained before you attempt to collect any wild seeds on your own.)
  • Spread the word: Tell as many people as possible about the splendor of native orchids and the importance protecting their native habitats.
  • Give: Donate to the orchid conservation center or your local native plant society or botanic garden.

Can I plant native orchids in my garden?

Cypripedium parviflorum var. pubescens. Yellow lady&#8\2\17;s slippers are found throughout the US and Canada. Photograph by Dan Jaffe, coauthor of Native Plants for New England Gardens; \$\17 via Amazon.
Above: Cypripedium parviflorum var. pubescens. Yellow lady’s slippers are found throughout the US and Canada. Photograph by Dan Jaffe, coauthor of Native Plants for New England Gardens; $17 via Amazon.

Yes, you can plant natives, but there are a few caveats.

  • Never harvest wild orchids to transplant to your garden. Not only is this often illegal and destructive to wild stock but also most native orchids won’t survive outside their natural microclimate.
  • Since many orchids only survive with the help of specific fungi, it is important to do your research to determine which plants might survive in your garden.
  • Always buy from a reputable nursery, such as your local native plant society or ask the society to provide you with a list of fully vetted sources.
Showy lady&#8\2\17;s slippers, Cypripedium reginae, is distributed throughout central and eastern US and Canada. Photograph by Dan Jaffe, courtesy of the New England Wildflower Society.
Above: Showy lady’s slippers, Cypripedium reginae, is distributed throughout central and eastern US and Canada. Photograph by Dan Jaffe, courtesy of the New England Wildflower Society.

See growing and care tips for native orchids’ tropical cousins at Orchids: A Field Guide to Planting, Care & Design. More for orchid and native plants lovers:

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