This section is from the book "The Native Flowers And Ferns Of The United States ", by Thomas Meehan. Also available from Amazon: The Native Flowers and Ferns of the United States in Their Botanical, Horticultural, And Popular Aspects.
Root of thick fibres; stem (six to nine inches high) hearing a single oval or lance-oblong leaf near the middle, and a smaller one or bract near the terminal flower, rarely one or two others with a flower in their axil; lip spatulate below, appressed to the column,beard crested and fringed; flower, one inch long, sweet-scented. (Gray's Manual of the Botany of the Northern United States. See also Chapman's Flora of the Southern United States and Wood's Class-Book of Botany.)
RCHIDS seem at first sight calculated to shake our con-fidence in the reliability of the morphological doctrine, according to which all the parts of a flower are but modifications of simple leaves. On closer investigation it will be seen, however, that hardly a better illustration of the truth of this doctrine could be found than is offered by a comparison of our present species, Pogonia ophioglossoides, with some other species of the same genus, and more especially with P. verlieillala'and P. pen-dula.
In P.pendula the stem is leafy, and there are a number of axillary flowers (one to four, according to Gray; three to seven, according to Chapman), but these flowers are far from being showy. The stem of P. verticillata, on the contrary, is naked (excepting some small scales at the base), and there is only one whorl of leaves at the summit, at the base of the reddish-brown flower. In P. ophioglossoides, finally, there is one leaf acting as a sheathing scale at the base, another near the middle of the stem, and again a smaller leaf or bract higher up, and above this a pretty rose-colored terminal flower.
In the case of P.pendula it might therefore be said that the Great Architect had not got far beyond the foundations of his work in making a Pogonia. The vegetative force seems feeble, and spends itself in often-repeated attempts; hence, small leaves and insignificant flowers are scattered all along the stem. But in P. verticillata the force exercised is evidently greater, not only in amount, but also in degree, and its action is more concentrated. The stem, therefore, instead of slowly elongating, and sending out a leaf and a flower here and there, rapidly draws in its spiral coils, thus producing only a verticil or whorl of leaves, and annihilating all tendency to flower in the axils; after which it makes another growth, and then another sudden arrest and coil, resulting in a large, single flower. Coming now to P. ophioglossoidcs, we find that the acting force was intermediate in intensity. Having coiled up the primordial leaves to form the flower-stem, the force was not powerful enough to arrest the formation of the leaves suddenly, and it therefore still left them somewhat scattered. Of the three leaves thus produced the lowermost is little more than a sheathing scale. The next or largest one shows by the groove down the stem opposite, as seen in our illustration, how very near it came to diverging still more than it actually does from the interior leaves, out of which the stem is formed; and the upper one, by its greatly reduced size, reveals the fact that the force employed in arresting the elongating growth, and in working up all the separate parts into a flower, is now in active operation. Thus we see how an exceedingly beautiful structure is built up from a few rough and simple materials.
In distinguishing; the genera of Orchids, the relative differ. ences in the sizes and forms of sepals and petals are taken into consideration, as well as the relative forms of the petals themselves. The lip is often very characteristic, and almost alone will enable the botanist to build a genus on it. Our present plant was regarded by Linnaeus as an Aretthusa, and as such it is described in all old works; but in this last-named genus, the sepals and petals are united at the base, while in Pogonia they are all distinct. There are other differences, but this one will strike the most cursory observer, and is well fitted to illustrate the point we wish to make, - that great apparent differences are often the result of very slight causes.
In our plant the lip is prettily bearded, and this suggested the name Pogonia, pogon being Greek for "beard." The specific name, ophioglossoidcs, is derived from the resemblance of the leaves to the fronds of an Ophioglossiim, a cryptogamic genus allied to the ferns. The English name "Snake-mouth" seems to be adopted by a great many writers, although we never heard our plant popularly thus called. One might suppose that there was some resemblance to a snake's mouth in the flower, but there is none, and the name is evidently suggested by the relation which the specific appellation bears to a snake, Ophioglossun:, from which it is derived, meaning "serpent's tongue."
Orchids are singularly circumscribed in their geographical ranges; but our present species, where it exists at all, is usually found in great abundance. It grows generally in bogs, among sphagnum and sedges, and in places so wet that those who go out collecting in patent-leather shoes have generally to be satisfied with admiring; from a distance. Sometimes a bog: will be perfectly ablaze with the bright purple blossoms, and we have frequently seen this beautiful sight, especially in the State of New Jersey. Our specimen was of Massachusetts growth, and rather smaller than is usual in more southern locations. The thready roots creep freely through the decaying moss and mud among which the plant grows, and are so small that those who collect for cultivation experience great difficulty in finding them. For this reason, it is necessary to take them up as they are going out of flower.
The interest in Orchids has of late years been particularly deep, on account of Mr. Darwin's papers on Orchid fertilization. The flowers of the Orchids are generally so constructed as to be unable to fertilize themselves, and they seem to be in a great measure dependent on insects. Mr. Darwin, speaking of our present species in this connection, says: "The flowers of Pogo-nia ophioglossoidcs, as described by Mr. Scudder, resemble those of Cephalanthera (a Mediterranean species) in not having a rostellum (that is to say, a beak), and in the pollen masses not being furnished with caudicles. The pollen consists of powdery masses, not united by threads. Self-fertilization seems to be effectually prevented, and the flowers on distinct plants must intercross, for each plant bears generally but a single flower." It will be observed, however, that Mr. Darwin argues only from the facts to be derived from a study of the structure of the flower, so that there is yet room for the student to make original observations, based upon its actual behavior. It is worthy of note that, with all the supposed advantages of cross-fertilization, there are not many families of Orchids in this country, nor indeed are the plants spread over wide districts. Of the genus Pogonia, there arc not many species, and its only close allies in America are Calopogon and Arcthusa, of which there are fewer species than of Pogonia itself. If these flowers are so beautifully colored for the especial purpose of attracting insects to their charms, they seem to profit so little by the arrangement that one might be pardoned for suggesting they would have been better off in an humbler garment. The lines of Paulding seem very applicable to them: "Be thine to live and never know Sweet sympathy in joy or woe; To see Time rob thee, one by one, Of every charm thou e'er hast known; To see the moth that round thee came Flit to some newer, brighter flame, And never know thy destined fate Till to retrieve it is too late!"
The Snake-mouth is found from Canada West to Wisconsin, and southward to Florida. It flowers in June. There is nothing recorded of its value in the arts.