Seeking Out Missouri’s Wild Orchids
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