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Seeking Out Missouri’s Wild Orchids

Orchids at Missouri Botanical Garden

Orchid, Missouri Botanical Garden

You hear the word orchid, what comes to mind? Beautiful flow­ers from warm, trop­i­cal islands? A plant grown in a hot­house, to be used as a cor­sage? Springtime in Missouri? Yes, Missouri. All three of those thoughts are cor­rect, but let’s not stop there. How about vanilla ice cream? The vanilla bean, used as a fla­vor­ing in many of your favorite foods, is the fruit from an orchid plant; rum is often fla­vored by the pods of another orchid species; and the tuber­ous roots of many orchids are edi­ble (they taste like potatoes).

Getting back to the beau­ti­ful flower part, it may sur­prise you to learn that orchids grow wild through­out Missouri—in fact, 36 species are found in Missouri, while Hawaii (there’s that trop­i­cal island thing again) can claim only three native species of orchids. Missouri’s wild orchids, although they don’t always resem­ble the large, exotic flower that comes to mind, are amaz­ing things of beauty and won­der. Nature lovers who wish to seek out Missouri’s orchids in bloom should head to undis­turbed areas in rocky glades, ravines, and along creeks. The showiest species appear in spring and early fall.

Orchids are found in many of Missouri’s State Parks, includ­ing some sur­pris­ing loca­tions, such asCrowder Sate Park in the north-central Missouri, near Trenton. Several native orchid species are found in the 1,912 acres of the park. While search­ing for the elu­sive plants, you can enjoy more than 17 miles of hik­ing, bicy­cling and eques­trian trails. The park offers fish­ing, boat­ing and swim­ming oppor­tu­ni­ties in 18-acre Crowder Lake. The family-oriented camp­ground includes mod­ern restrooms, and shady pic­nic sites scat­tered through­out the park.

Although known pri­mar­ily for its lake and recre­ational water activ­i­ties, Harry S. Truman State Park, out­side of Warsaw, is home to ample orchid pop­u­la­tions for the dis­cern­ing lover of flora. The plants are found in the park’s oak wood­lands, nat­ural grass­lands and lake­side areas. The expan­sive park has a marina, fish­ing, boat­ing, swim­ming, hik­ing trails, pic­nic areas, camp­sites, and an abun­dance of wildlife.

Near the Missouri com­mu­nity of Pittsburg, the 7,800-acre Pomme de Terre State Park offers two hik­ing trails with many areas to spot native orchids. The lake is a great place for bass, wall­eye, cat­fish and crap­pie fish­ing. Also, this is the home of Missouri’s big game fish, the muskel­lunge, more com­monly called the muskie, the largest mem­ber of the pike family.

While famous for its more than 40 caves, includ­ing Fisher Cave, where you can take a tour,Meramec State Park, off of I-44, south of Sullivan, is home to at least 10 species of native orchids, which can be found by explor­ing the many hik­ing trails. Canoeing and raft­ing the Meramec River are very pop­u­lar in the park. The park’s vis­i­tor cen­ter holds a large aquar­ium that shows the diver­sity of aquatic life found at the park.

You can dis­cover upward of 11 species of Missouri orchids near Troy, in the Cuivre River State Park, which is known for its 11 hik­ing, back­pack­ing and eques­trian trails which mean­der through prairies and forests. The park has mod­ern camp­sites, group camps, pic­nic areas and a lake.

While orchids are wide­spread through­out the state, they are not com­mon and are rarely abun­dant. Many species of orchids are tiny and incon­spic­u­ous in the land­scape, like the crane-fly orchid with its half-inch blos­som; but you can spot them if you look closely and know what to look for. The yel­low lady-slippers orchid, which blooms in late April, is Missouri’s showiest, often reach­ing three feet tall. Missouri’s seven species of ladies’-tresses orchid, which bloom from August into November, are the most com­monly encoun­tered, espe­cially in parks with glades that have con­trolled burns.

Let’s not be stingy by lim­it­ing our dis­cus­sion to only Missouri native orchids. The orchid is earth’s sec­ond largest fam­ily of flow­er­ing plants, num­ber­ing between 21,950 and 26,049 cur­rently accepted species; more than twice the num­ber of bird species, and about four times the num­ber of mam­mal species.
The Missouri Botanical Garden, located in St. Louis, main­tains one of America’s largest and finest Orchid Collections, includ­ing roughly 7,500 plants, of 2,500 species of these fas­ci­nat­ing plants. Orchids can be viewed in the Garden’s Visitor Center and in the Climatron con­ser­va­tory on the grounds, as well as their Shaw Nature Reserve, in Gray Summit, 30 miles out­side of St. Louis. The Garden holds an annual Orchid Show from late January through mid-March in their Visitor Center. Founded in 1859, Missouri Botanical Garden is the old­est botan­i­cal gar­den in con­tin­u­ous oper­a­tion in the United States. It is a National Historic Landmark, with 79 acres of gar­dens and his­toric structures.

Another great place to view orchids from around the world is Powell Gardens, located in Kingsville, south­east of Kansas City. Set on 915 acres of lush, rolling hills and mead­ows, Powell Gardens offers breath­tak­ing dis­play gar­dens, inter­est­ing archi­tec­ture, a nature trail, plus a year-round cal­en­dar of spe­cial events and classes for the fam­ily. Powell Gardens includes the Island Garden, the Perennial Garden, the Rock and Waterfall Garden, the Wildflower Meadow, a chapel, and the ever chang­ing Terrace Gardens. The 12-acre Heartland Harvest Garden is one of the largest edi­ble land­scapes in the nation.

Information on orchids and other native Missouri plants is avail­able through Grow Native, a joint project of the Missouri Department of Conservation and the Department of Agriculture. Contact The Orchid Society of Greater Kansas City for guide­lines on grow­ing orchids in your home.

You can get help with gar­den­ing from the Missouri Botanical Garden. They offer a Horticultural Answer Service, where mas­ter gar­den­ers pro­vide per­son­al­ized answers to your spe­cific phone-in ques­tions. Call 314–577-5143, Monday-Friday, 9 a.m. to noon.

To help iden­tify Missouri’s orchids, a guide book, titled “Missouri Orchids,” com­piled by Bill Summers, is avail­able through the Missouri Department of Conservation Nature Centers. In his book, Summers gives this rea­son to pro­tect, and pre­serve, Missouri’s orchids: “To sud­denly come upon a colony of lady-slipper orchids in full bloom is a sight to be remem­bered always,” he writes. “They will hold you spell­bound until you sud­denly real­ize they are real and that nature, once again, is the per­fect artist.”

Be very care­ful in your quest. Orchids are to be admired, not touched. The roots are attached to fun­gal threads in the soil; if you dis­turb the roots or dig one up, the orchid will die when those threads are bro­ken. It is ille­gal in Missouri to dig up or remove any plant from the right-of-way of state or county road­ways, state parks or pub­lic lands—the penalty can be a year in jail and/or a fine of up to $1,000.

Find list­ings for thou­sands of Missouri attrac­tions, events and vaca­tion ideas on Official Missouri Travel Guide.”

Photo by pho­to­by­dave

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