This section is from the book "Nature's Garden", by Neltje Blanchan. Also available from Amazon: Nature's Garden; An Aid To Knowledge Of Our Wild Flowers And Their Insect Visitors.
Flowers - Small, white or yellowish, without a spur, fragrant, nodding or spreading in 3 rows on a cylindrical, slightly twisted spike 4 or 5 in. long. Side sepals free, the upper ones arching, and united with petals; the oblong, spreading lip crinkle-edged, and bearing minute, hairy callosities at base. Stem: 6 in. to 2 ft. tall, with several pointed, wrapping bracts. Leaves: From or near the base, linear, almost grass-like.
Preferred Habitat - Low meadows, ditches, and swamps.
Flowering Season - July - October.
Distribution - Nova Scotia to the Gulf of Mexico, and westward to the Mississippi.
This last orchid of the season, and perhaps the commonest of its interesting tribe in the eastern United States, at least, bears flowers that, however insignificant in size, are marvellous pieces of mechanism, to which such men as Charles Darwin and Asa Gray have devoted hours of study and, these two men particularly, much correspondence.
Just as a woodpecker begins at the bottom of a tree and taps his way upward, so a bee begins at the lower and older flowers on a spike and works up to the younger ones; a fact on which this little orchid, like many another plant that arranges its blossoms in long racemes, depends. Let us not note for the present what happens in the older flowers, but begin our observations, with the help of a powerful lens, when the bee has alighted on the spreading lip of a newly opened blossom toward the top of the spire. As nectar is already secreted for her in its receptacle, she thrusts her tongue through the channel provided to guide it aright, and by the slight contact with the furrowed rostellum, it splits, and releases a boat-shaped disk standing vertically on its stern in the passage. Within the boat is an extremely sticky cement that hardens almost instantly on exposure to the air. The splitting of the rostellum, curiously enough, never happens without insect aid; but if a bristle or needle be passed over it ever so lightly, a stream of sticky, milky fluid exudes, hardens, and the boat-shaped disk, with pollen masses attached, may be withdrawn on the bristle just as the bee removes them with her tongue. Each pollinium consists of two leaves of pollen united for about half their length in the middle with elastic threads. As the pollinia are attached parallel to the disk, they stick parallel on the bee's tongue, yet she may fold up her proboscis under her head, if she choose, without inconvenience from the pollen masses, or without danger of loosening them. Now, having finished sucking the newly opened flowers at the top of the spike, away she flies to an older flower at the bottom of another one. Here a marvellous thing has happened. The passage which, when the flower first expanded, scarcely permitted a bristle to pass, has now widened through the automatic downward movement of the column in order to expose the stigmatic surfaces to contact with the pollen masses brought by the bee. Without the bee's help this orchid, with a host of other flowers, must disappear from the face of the earth. So very many species which have lost the power to fertilize themselves now depend absolutely on these little pollen carriers, it is safe to say that, should the bees perish, one half our flora would be exterminated with them. On the slight downward movement of the column in the ladies' tresses, then, as well as on the bee's ministrations, the fertilization of the flower absolutely depends. "If the stigma of the lowest flower has already been fully fertilized," says Darwin, "little or no pollen will be left on its dried surface; but on the next succeeding flower, of which the stigma is adhesive, large sheets of pollen will be left. Then as soon as the bee arrives near the summit of the spike she will withdraw fresh pollinia, will fly to the lower flowers on another plant, and fertilize them; and thus, as she goes her rounds and adds to her store of honey, she continually fertilizes fresh flowers and perpetuates the race of autumnal spiranthes, which will yield honey to future generations of bees."
Ladies' Tresses (Gyrostachys cernua)
The Slender Ladies' Tresses (G. gracilis), with a range and season of blossom similar to the preceding species, and with even smaller white, fragrant flowers, growing on one side of a twisted spike, chooses dry fields, hillsides, open woods, and sandy places - queer habitats for a member of its moisture-loving tribe. Its leaves have usually fallen by flowering time. The cluster of tuberous, spindle-shaped roots are an aid to indentification.