Orchids in the Tallgrass

“It’s about getting immersed in something, and learning about it, and having it become part of your life. It’s a kind of direction.” –Susan Orlean

***

Even the most loyal prairie lovers may find themselves hungry for a little bright color in February. Sure, there are the russets and silks, still out there until the first licks of flame from a prescribed burn turn them to memories.

P1050297.jpg

But don’t we always long for that which we don’t have?

If you want a jolt of bright colors in winter, the Chicago Botanic Garden’s Orchid Show is a pretty good bet. Wander through the greenhouses, and you’re immersed in pink, purple, and orange.

P1040876.jpg

And ohhh! That smell of humidity and moist earth! If I close my eyes and inhale, I can imagine I’m on the prairie after a July thunderstorm.

Here, at the Chicago Botanic, I learn a few things about the cultural and social significance of the flowers. Orchids, I find, are often a symbol of wealth. Turns out Beyoncé had 10,000 of them flown in for her wedding. On a lesser scale for us mere mortals, perhaps you had an orchid corsage for your high school prom or an Easter outing. The Orchid Show may prompt a flood of these types of orchid-related memories.
p1040994

But not all blooms are of the corsage type. There are orchids in simple, clear lemon-colored zen forms…

p1040961

…orchids in every possible combination of colors…

p1040947

…and many crazy patterns.

P1040900.jpg

The white orchids are stunningly elegant in their simplicity.

p1040833

Beautiful, yes?  Yet, they still fail to delight me like the orchids on the prairie.

Orchids on the prairie? What’s that, you say?

IMG_4571

Illinois has 45 different species of native orchids, I learn at the show, including the small white lady’s slipper in the photo above. They come in different shapes, sizes, and colors, as their exotic cousins do.

But perhaps the native orchids are prettiest in bright white. Like these nodding ladies’ tresses in the autumn tallgrass.

img_8510

Mmmm– that scent! Light and vanilla-ish.

Some of the Chicago Botanic Garden’s exotic orchids are scented, as well. This orchid smells like chocolate.

p1040991

There are spectacular non-native pink orchids on display at the Orchid Show.

P1040923.jpg

Although they are beautiful, I still prefer the pink lady’s slipper orchids, like this one I found up north, around Lake Superior.

IMG_0987

I admire the blooms at the Chicago Botanic’s Orchid Show.  They bring sunshine and a touch of the exotic to my Midwestern winter.

P1040888.jpg

But, attending a flower show is a different experience than the joy I feel when I find an native wildflower, like this eastern prairie fringed orchid, while out for a hike on the prairie. That feeling can’t be replicated in any hothouse, no matter how beautiful the display.

IMG_6621

Once you know the location of a particular orchid, you follow its existence with a bit of parental anxiety. Sort of like a mom waiting up for her teenager when curfew is long past. Will the orchid bloom again this season? When? Will the weather conditions favor it? What about trampling animals; lack of pollinators?  Will the orchids show up?

Blink–and you’ll miss them.

p1050145

Which makes finding native orchids each season a treasured moment. Imagine the happiness I felt when the little patch of  lady’s slipper orchids I’ve watched over like a mother had twelve blooms this spring, instead of six, as they did the year before.

IMG_4578

No floral display –not even one with 10,000 orchids–can replicate the tallgrass prairie landscape with its native orchids, and its attendant serendipities and disappointments from year to year.

P1050331.jpg

But until spring comes to the prairie, the exotics will stand in. And they are welcome for their color, variety, and scent, just as the natives will be as the weather warms up.

Soon. Very soon.

***

Susan Orlean (1955-, whose quote opens this essay,  is the author of The Orchid Thief: A True Story of Beauty and Obsession (1998), based on an article she wrote for the New Yorker about Florida orchid growers and poachers. Her book was later made into the movie, Adaptation. She grew up in Cleveland, Ohio, and graduated from University of Michigan. Orlean was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2014.

All photos copyright Cindy Crosby (top to bottom): Orchid Show, Chicago Botanic Garden, Glencoe, IL; Orchid Show, Chicago Botanic Garden, Glencoe, IL; Orchid Show, Chicago Botanic Gardens, Glencoe, IL; Orchid Show, Chicago Botanic Garden, Glencoe, IL; Orchid Show, Chicago Botanic Garden, Glencoe, IL; Orchid Show, Chicago Botanic Garden, Glencoe, IL; small white lady’s slipper (Cypripedium candidum) with tiny green pollinator (likely metallic green sweat bee, genus  Agapostemon), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL: nodding ladies’ tresses (Spiranthes cernua), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL; Orchid Show, Chicago Botanic Garden, Glencoe, IL; Orchid Show, Chicago Botanic Garden, Glencoe, IL;  pink lady’s slipper (Cypripedium acaule) with yellow blue-bead lily (Clintonia borealis) and Canadian bunchberry (Cornus canadensis, Isle Royale National Park, Michigan; Orchid Show, Chicago Botanic Garden, Glencoe, IL; eastern prairie fringed orchid (Platanthera leucophaea), Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL;  Fame Flower Knob, Nachusa Grasslands, The Nature Conservancy, Franklin Grove, IL; small white lady’s slipper (Cypripedium candidum), Schulenberg Prairie, The Morton Arboretum, Lisle, IL;  Burlington Prairie, Kane County Forest Preserve and Illinois DNR, Burlington, IL.

15 responses to “Orchids in the Tallgrass

  1. I was just at the orchid show yesterday, with my friend Joyce, the steward of Grant Woods. She teased me that I would be lost to the world of nature painting. I may indeed paint a few of those beauties, but I agree that there is nothing like coming across a native orchid. Weren’t the orchid paintings wonderful?

    Liked by 1 person

  2. likewise how getting IMMERSED in one thing opens doors to another. My interest in Morel’s lead me to wildflowers and prairies. Perhaps your interest in prairies lead you to great photography etc?

    Liked by 2 people

    • So true! Glad to hear about the way you first engaged in wildflowers and prairies, Mike. I would say my love of prairies and immersion in them led to dragonflies, among other things! 🙂 Thanks for reading and commenting. (Good morel weather!)

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Oh I love that yellow zen orchid. They are all amazing indeed but I agree with you about prairies. I never knew so many orchids grow in Illinois prairies. Wonderful photos!!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Sure, those orchids are beautiful, but how was the written interpretation?

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think we spent as much time with the interpretive panels as with the orchids! It was A-plus — simple, clean, and intriguing. I posted to the NAI Interp Media FB page if you want to see highlights. 🙂

      Like

  5. Prairie orchids rule! Loved this post, your evocative prose and beautiful photos! xoxo

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Love orchids! I remember first seeing wild orchids near where I grew up in the pine barrens of New Jersey. I’ve only seen a few wild ones here, but I haven’t researched them yet. Also, the other day I found out they have a “coastal prairie” here!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. keithskreations15

    Awesome post. Love the pics. We’re into orchids ourselves and were delighted to find native orchids on our place some years back.

    Unfortunately, they don’t pop up all the time. Only during very wet times.

    We haven’t seen them in years, now. 😦

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s