By Shelburne resident John Gange, a Bellwether School eighth grader
Many people think of orchids as exotic, tropical plants that are sold at flower shops and need warm temperatures and constant care. But orchids, being the largest and one of the most diverse families of flowering plants, grow all over the world and can be found on every continent except Antarctica. A huge variety of orchids grow in Vermont, some in Shelburne. Many orchids found in Vermont are unrecognizable as orchids to most people. Take the Green-Fringed Orchid, for example. Its white-green flowers are small and delicate with many fragile fringes and, at first glance, is hard to identify as an orchid.
Probably the best-known orchid native to Vermont is the Pink Lady’s-Slipper, also known as the Moccasin Flower. Found in moist woodland areas and sometimes on mountain trails, the Pink Lady’s-Slipper is very easy to identify with its beautiful pouch. The Pink Lady’s-Slipper’s name in botanical Latin is Cypripedium caule. It can have various forms including torma biflorum (two flowers on one stem), forma albiflorum (white color), and forma lancifolium (narrow-leaved form).
It’s best if you find a native orchid to keep its location safe. Orchids like a Pink Lady’s-Slipper are also very delicate, so try not to step on or pick these flowers. If you transplant them they are most likely to die, so the best action is to take a picture and try your best not to damage the plant or its habitat.
One of my personal favorites is Arethusa bulbosa, or Dragon’s Mouth. This plant is quite rare and is found in spagnum bogs. A hardy perrenial like most of the native orchids in Vermont, Dragon’s Mouth can survive long cold winters and bloom in late May and early June.
One of the easiest ways to identify an orchid is to use a key. Using a key involves answering a series of questions about your orchid to narrow down which one it is. For some people, keys are hard to learn, but once you get to know them it’s the best way to identify wild orchids or any wildflower. The best keys can be found in “Wild Orchids of the Northeast” by Paul Martin Brown. I’m still learning how to use keys, but they have helped me to identify many orchids and forms.
The Rams-Head Lady’s-Slipper may be the smallest and rarest Lady’s-Slipper in New England. Its beautiful triangular pouch also has an intricate design laced with purple. These orchids are very small. Its maximum height is about 30 centimeters. The flower is about the size of your thumbnail. I have found these in several locations in Vermont.
Platanthera lacera forma gangii is an orchid that I discovered myself. This rare form is an example of how many orchids and other natural wonders there are in the world to discover. So next time you hear about orchids, don’t just think about exotic plants you buy in a store; think about orchids as a gem in nature and one of the many wonders of Vermont.
Editor’s Note: Humble 11-year-old John Gange doesn’t give himself enough credit for discovering an orchid, the Platanthera lacera forma gangii. Congratulations!