When I was a little girl, I spent many days with my family “tromping” – that’s mountaineer talk for “tramping” – through the woods of western North Carolina looking for wildflowers. My folks owned a piece of property near the North Carolina/Tennessee state line off a barely accessible road in the Pisgah National Forest. They built a cabin, and we vacationed there for many years. My grandmother – a great gardener and lover of wildflowers – always traveled with us, and during the spring, we enjoyed nice woodland walks where we often saw an abundance of wildflowers in bloom.

Our greatest and treasured finds on these forays were the lady’s slippers. Native orchids! To a kid, these were such exotic plants, growing in the most unexpected places and dressed up in floral finery much too fancy for the rugged mountains. YellowLadysSlipperThree distinct orchids stick in my mind – the showy orchis, (Galearis spectabilis), yellow lady’s slipper (Cypripedium parviflorum) and the pink lady’s slipper (Cypripedium acaule). I’m sure my personal fascination with slippers was the major draw for me with these plants.

Stanley L. Bentley’s beautiful book, “Native Orchids of the Southern Appalachian Mountains,” confirms the fact that these three orchids do grow in Haywood County, North Carolina. This book takes a comprehensive look at orchid species located in a specific range of the Southern Appalachian Mountains encompassing the Blue Ridge Mountains in North Carolina and Virginia, the Unaka Mountains of eastern Tennessee, the Ridge and Valley Province of Virginia and Tennessee, the Allegheny Mountains of Virginia, West Virginia and Kentucky, and the Cumberland Plateau of Tennessee.  Fifty-two species of native orchids in 21 genera are described and illustrated with stunning photography. By my count, 23 of the 52 species can be found in Haywood County alone, with various other orchids in surrounding mountain counties.

dwarf rattlesnake plantainOne of the most common is the dwarf rattlesnake plantain (Goodyera repens). This orchid can be found in woodland and varied habitats. Since it is so common, I believe wildflower enthusiasts, hunters and other woodland guests overlook this plant and even forget that it is an orchid. Orchids are supposed to be exotic, rare and rarely seen. “Not entirely true,” explains Bentley. Rarity is dependant on location, peculiarities of the orchid species and sometimes timing. Of the 52 orchids in the Southern Appalachian Mountains, 12 exist in over 75 of the 132 county regions. This statistic supports the idea that almost one fourth of the orchid species should be easy to find.

That’s encouraging news for gardeners and plant enthusiasts who what to see orchids in native habitats. But, you may say, “I find that hard to believe. I’ve never seen orchids in the wild.” It helps to know what to look for and how to look. Some orchids are well camouflaged with green, brown, yellow and black coloration in the flowers that blends into the surrounding vegetation. Other orchids take time, even years, before sending up a flowering stem. Some have strange needs associated with weather changes before flowering, and some are really tiny. Others bloom at times that are not convenient or coinciding with human activities out of doors. For these reasons and many more, you might be missing out on the jewels you are seeking.

Below are some tips on how to look for orchids in the wild: 

  • Orchids can be found in almost every month of the year; learn to look for out-of-season signs, such as dried seed capsules.
  • Orchids can be found just about anywhere – look in unexpected places like disturbed sites, roadside ditches and wet places. Get outside and into the fields, meadows, woods and roadsides.
  • Educate yourself about the plant or plants you want to see by reading and talking with others. There are an abundance of resources found at the Arboretum’s library, which is available for members.
  • Collect maps of your own to help you track and locate wild orchids for viewing and photography.
  • Learn to use tools like a compass, camera and binoculars to locate orchids.

An important note about preserving orchids and their habitats must include the code of conduct to NEVER collect orchids from the wild. Attempts at transplanting orchids almost always fail because of a special fungal relationship orchids have with the soils around their roots. When you take orchids from the wild, your action depletes native populations.

If you’re interested in learning more about cultivated exotic orchids, their habitats and other growing techniques, consider attending the 2016 Asheville Orchid Festival, this Friday, April 15 – Sunday, April 17 at The North Carolina Arboretum. Hundreds of orchids will be on display, curated by national and internationally-known orchid experts. An admission charge of five dollars per person is required this year to attend the show, and vendors will be onsite with plants available for purchase.

Photo credit: Jim Fowler Photography