A Garden Friendly Native Orchid

Spiranthes cernua odorata 'Chadds Ford'

Article by Barry Glick, illustration  by Stephen K-M. Tim.

Reprinted from Plants & Gardens News, Spring 1995, published quarterly by the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. Copyright 1995 Brooklyn Botanic Garden

Like far too many native plants these days, Spiranthes cernua odorata 'Chadds Ford', a native orchid, was discovered just as its habitat was about to be destroyed. Dick Ryan, an eccentric character with a passion for native orchids, found the plant back in the 1960s in a wet ditch near his hometown of Bear, Delaware. At the time, Bear was a rural crossroads town. Today, this former orchid habitat is overrun by tract homes.

It didn't take long for word about Ryan's exquisite discovery to spread. Dr. Merlin Brubacker, a plantsman with a keen interest in tropical orchids, was smitten by this denizen of temperate Delaware. In 1973, a division of the orchid grown by Dr. Brubacker received the coveted Certificate of Cultural Merit from the American Orchid Society.

Nodding Ladies Tresses

Spiranthes cernua odorata, a fragrant form of the species commonly known as nodding ladies tresses, is found in coastal regions of southeastern states from Virginia to Florida and west to Texas, where it flowers from fall through winter.

Nodding ladies tresses grow to about 3 feet tall, with 3 to 6 glossy, dark green
leaves up to 8 inches long on the lower part of the stem. Its yellowish white
blossoms are larger than those of the species, Spiranthes cernua, which is
found throughout eastern North America. Like other members of the genus
Spiranthes, the flowers of this species are arranged in a twisted, spiral-shaped
spike. (The name Spiranthes comes from two Greek words, speira, meaning
spiral, and anthos, meaning flower.) Members of the species are called nodding
ladies tresses because of the nodding habit of the individual florets that make
up the flower spike.

A Smell of Jasmine

One of the most distinctive features of Spiranthes cernua odorata is its potent,
sweet fragrance, often compared to that of vanilla or jasmine. 'Chadds Ford' is
a wonderful cultivar--a vigorous grower with large, extremely fragrant flowers.
Although the plant was discovered in Delaware, it was named in honor of
Chadds Ford, the town in southeast Pennsylvania where Dr. Brubaker lived.
Ever since the dawn of gardening, orchids have had a mystique. In the words
of botanist Welby R. Smith, who has written an entire book on the orchids of
Minnesota alone, "Orchids are often thought of as rare, fragile objects d'art,
existing only in steamy tropical forests or Edwardian greenhouses. In reality,
nothing could be further from the truth. Orchids occur worldwide from the arctic
tundra to Tierra del Fuego. They are absent only from the driest deserts and the
wettest aquatic habitats." Orchids make up one of the largest plant familes, with
725 genera and more than 20,000 species and account for some 7 to 10
percent of all flowering plants on Earth!

Nearly everyone is familiar with the multitude of orchids from the tropics, where the majority of orchids live. In most regions of this country, these must be grown as houseplants. Few gardeners are aware of the surprising diversity of terrestrial orchids native to the U.S. (As the name implies, terrestrial orchids are those that are rooted in soil. All orchids in temperate regions are terrestrial; most tropical orchids are epiphytic, meaning they grow on another plant--but aren't parasitic--usually in the canopies of the tallest trees.) Some 216 species of terrestrial orchids are native to North America. Among the many genera of native orchids are Cypripedium, the lady slippers; Isotria, the whorled pogonias; Platanthera, the fringed orchids; Pogonia, the beard flowers; Goodyera, the plantain orchids; Listera, the twayblade orchids; Corallorhiza, the coral root orchids; and Tipularia, the cranefly orchids.

An Elusive Prize

Until recently, orchid lovers have only been able to appreciate native orchids in the wild, not in the garden. Many of these plants are slow to propagate and therefore are not readily available from commercial sources. For decades, orchids have been dug up from the wild by unscrupulous collectors,who have decimated entire plant populations. This, in addition to loss of habitat to development, are themajor threats to the long-term survival of many orchids as well as other native species. For this reason it's important to buy native orchids only from nurseries that are propagating them vegetatively, not collecting them from the wild. Fortunately, in recent years, there have been great strides in propagating even the most difficult orchids, such as the lady slipper Cypripedium reginae, which is beingpropagated by tissue culture by Bill Steele of Spangle Creek Labs in Washington.

Orchids are not only difficult to propagate; they also have a reputation of being almost impossible to grow. The most commonly accepted theory on why they're so temperamental is that the symbiotic relationship with mycorrhizal fungi found on the root tips, essential for the breakdown of nutrients in the soil to forms the plants can use, is difficult to simulate in a garden setting. Spiranthes cernua odorata 'Chadds Ford' is the exception to the rule. It's not only easy to grow but also forms colonies quickly.

A Prodigious Beginning

In August 1992, Dr. Richard Lighty, director of the Mt. Cuba Center for the Study of Piedmont Flora in Greenville, DE, gave me a 6-inch pot of 'Chadds Ford'. I kept the plant in a moderately heated greenhouse (45¡F). By December 30 I was able to divide out thirty-two 2-1/2-inch pots, eighteen 4-inch pots and put the stock plant back in its original pot.

The following spring, I transplanted several divisions outside in the garden. By midsummer, flower buds had begun to form. In late summer, my garden was graced with 18-inch spikes of waxy white orchid flowers, tinged with green and scented vanilla. The flowers persisted into late fall.

Like others of its species, 'Chadds Ford' prefers wet feet. However, it will do perfectly well in any rich, moisture-retentive soil, in sun or shade. Given these conditions, this plant, which is stoloniferous, will multiply in no time at all. I highly recommend it, even for the novice gardener.

Further Reading

If you'd like to learn more about native orchids, take a look at the following books. Some are out of print but can be found in any good horticultural library:

Hardy Orchids by Phillip Cribb & Christopher Bailes.
Timber Pr., Portland, 1989.

Orchids for the Outdoor Garden by A.W. Darnell. First
published by L. Reeve & Co., Ltd., Ashford, Kent, 1930.
Reprinted by Dover Publications, New York, 1976.

Wild Orchids of the Middle Atlantic States by Oscar
W. Gupton and Fred C. Swope. University of Tennessee
Press, Knoxville, 1986.

Flora of West Virginia by P.D. Strasbaugh and Earl
Core. Seneca Books, Morgantown, 1978.

Orchids of Minnesota by Welby R. Smith. Univ. of
Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 1993.

Where to See Native Orchids

One of the most exciting things you can do is visit a wild population of native orchids. A great place to see them is at the Cranberry Glades in the Monongahela National Forest in Pocahontas County, WV. Almost every state has a native plant society that you can join and that will direct you to wild orchid populations in your area. A list of these groups can be found in Brooklyn Botanic Garden's Gardening with Wildflowers & Native Plants, handbook #119, available for $6.95 plus $3.75 for shipping and handling (NY City and State residents must include sales tax) from BBG, 1000 Washington Ave., Brooklyn, NY 11225-1099. You can also see native orchids at public gardens, including BBG's Local Flora Garden, Garden in the Woods in Framingham, MA, University of Wisconsin Madison Arboretum and Berry Botanic Garden in Portland, WA.