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, fleshy fibres, producing two oblong-obovate shining leaves, three to five inches long, and a few-flowered, four-angled scape, four to seven inches high; bracts leaf-like, lanceolate; sepals and petals all lightly united to form the vaulted galea or upper lip, pink purple; the ovate undivided lip, white. (Gray's Manual of Botany. See also Chapman's Flora of the Southern States, and Wood's Class-Booh.)
THE Orchid family is wcll known as the most peculiar in the vegetable world. In the temperate regions of Europe, Asia, and America, the plants belonging to it grow in the earth; but in the tropics they generally attach themselves to trees and other objects, deriving most of their nutrition from the atmosphere. The flowers, in many cases, resemble living creatures, frequently vying with them in the beauty of their colors and markings; and singularly dependent, in many cases, on insect agency for the fertilization of their flowers. The purpose of the necessity for fertilization by external agency does not seem clear, though many leading botanists believe it is expressly to avoid self-fertilization, which they regard as injurious, but an Australian species closes its flower with a spring and catches the visiting insect, according to Drummond, thus effectually destroying its chances of cross-fertilization, if that were the object in view.
It is indeed difficult to decide on the purpose of Nature in the structure or behavior of plants, or their several parts, because Nature's purposes are never wholly with a present view. We know by geological and other evidences that the plants of the present age are not as plants were in past periods of the world's history. There is an evident purpose that in the future, plantraces shall not be as they are now, and in pursuit of this plan Nature must of necessity have a destructive as well as a preservative policy, and how a plant behaves may not therefore be necessarily for its own good in the sense in which we understand goodness. Yet there is a tendency to question the plant as to the reasons for the phenomena it exhibits, while the questions should really be addressed to an external power which is looking into the future far beyond.
Not only may we ask, Why are these flowers arranged for cross-fertilization ? but, Why are they made to simulate so many forms of the animal world ? Some have supposed that the resemblance to insects was to attract insects, but it is difficult to understand how the Orchids accomplish this any better than those flowers which have no peculiar form. If there were any design in the relationship between the flowers and the animate forms they represent, it might have been to frighten the insects away, for we rarely see an insect interfering with another while it is at work. Indeed, this point has been actually suggested by one of the poets, in the following lines: " The orchis race, with varied beauty, charm And mock the exploring fly, or bee's aerial form."
These remarks are offered that the student may not hastily decide from form, or the arrangements of structure, that the immediate purposes of Nature are clearly manifested. Very often the plant's behavior has a direct relationship to its individual prosperity, but by no means always. Our species has no striking resemblance to any particular insect, but it attracts all lovers of wild flowers by the very pretty contrast of the delicate rosy-pink upper sepal with the large white labellum or lip. The unusually long spur is a striking characteristic.
The name "Orchis" was already in use by the ancients; but with the progress of botany, the species bearing this name have been placed in various genera, so that the one we illustrate is now the only representative of the genus Orchis, as established by Linnaeus, which we have in the United States, and even this was transferred by Sprengel to Habcnaria.
Most of our Orchids, that we should call pretty, seem to prefer growing in open places; but this is one of the few which delight in the shade and shelter of the woods, where it is amoncr the later spring flowers to bloom. In Pennsylvania, it is to be found in the early part of the month of June, and probably a little earlier or later, as it grows northward or southward of this. Dr. Gray gives its range as from "New England to Kentucky, especially northward." Botanists generally do not report it as very abundant in any one place. The writer has seldom been able to gather more than a dozen or two on any one botanical excursion, though it is doubtless more plentiful in some places. Dr. Darlington, in his Flora Cestrica, speaks of it as being frequent in the rich woods of Chester County, Pa., and as having the common name there of " Preacher in the Pulpit." It seems, however, to have no popular name in other parts of the United States. Dr. Gray, in the Manual, simply translates its scientific name, "Showy Orchis."
Generally speaking, our native terrestrial Orchids are impatient of culture. They will sometimes do well for a few years, but usually disappear in time. This one has not been tried to any great extent, but would no doubt transplant well to places similar to those in which it is found naturally, and might then perhaps spread, and do well. It could be made to succeed, if the same amount of skill were brought to bear on it which the intelligent cultivator gives to the epiphytal species from the tropics.
It is interesting to note that, while most of the true Orchises of Europe have a tuberous root in addition to the fibres, our species has fleshy fibres only. In the foreign species, there are a pair of these tubers, one of the past and the other of the present season's growth, the one growing out of, and seemingly being-supported by the other, and at length appearing to draw wholly out the parent's life. On this Darwin, in his " Botanic Garden," has the following expressive lines: ' With blushes bright as morn fair Orchis charms, And lulls her infant in her fondling arms; Soft plays affection round her bosom's throne, And guards his life, forgetful of her own."
Our illustration is from a Pennsylvania specimen.
A useful starchy product is obtained from the roots of some of the European species of Orchis; but our species is of no known value to man, unless, as some good thinkers will have it, mere beauty is as essential as the more material things of life.