Nature Notes: Orchids Abound

Now is the time to begin looking for them, photographing them, but not picking them
Among the South Fork’s very rare orchids is the dragon’s-mouth orchid, Arethusa bulbosa, which grows in the peaty top of Montauk’s ocean bluffs. Victoria Bustamante

My first 21 years were spent on the North Fork looking at this and that. While I specialized in birds, learned the mammals — there weren’t that many — I also knew the local frogs, turtles, newts. and fish, which I learned by catching them. I knew as many garden and farm plants as native plants, I knew that Japanese honeysuckle was not American, and I knew about a handful of other invasives. I knew blueberries, beach plums, black cherries, because I picked them and ate them. I knew poison ivy because it made you itch like the devil. I knew most of the forbs, grasses, shrubs, and trees along the sides of the two miles of roads that I walked back and forth along on my way to school and back home.

I know a lot of seaweeds because while I was crabbing and clamming I would eat them, as well as the stalks of salt marsh grasses, the bases of which were deliciously salty. What I didn’t know were those forbs that grew in deep woods, in wetlands and dunes and the like. I never learned a native lily, although I knew they were around, and I almost never heard the word “orchid.” I would occasionally come across a pink lady slipper, but to me it was just another pretty wildflower.

The Orient potato farmer Roy Latham was much more familiar with the East End’s natural history than I. Since the early 1900s, he had been out finding this and that exotic wildflower, this and that unusual tree. He knew all the fishes, invertebrates, birds, mammals, and the rest of the animal species. I had heard of this marvelous farmer-naturalist, but never met him. He not only knew the fauna and flora, but he wrote voluminously about them. His works are found far and wide, but the majority of them — specimens and hard print works — are in the New York State Museum in Albany.

One of his chief interests was the orchids of Long Island and he pretty much knew every one by both common and scientific name. It is said that even when Latham could no longer walk and was half blind, he crawled to a spot in a Greenport wood to show some naturalists one of the rarest Long Island orchids there. I didn’t learn about Long Island’s orchids until I came back from the West Coast to teach at Southampton College in 1974. In order to teach about the South Fork’s animals and plants, I took a crash course in them. I had to be both teacher and student at the same time.

I was fascinated by the richness of the local wildlife and plant life. It wasn’t the tropics, but it was bountiful and diverse. One by one I learned the orchids — there weren’t that many — and I am still in the process of de­veloping an intimate knowledge of every one. A Riverhead High School teacher, younger than I am and now retired, was way ahead of me. He followed in Latham’s tracks and refound all of the orchids that Latham had collected and written about, and then some others. His name? Eric Lamont. He combed hither and yon before writing “Orchids of New England and New York” with a fellow botanist, Tom Nelson. This wonderful little field guide published by Kollath-Stensaas describes and illustrates the area’s orchids in a terse but colorful way.

And now is the time to begin looking for them, photographing them, but not picking them. Napeague and Montauk are the richest orchid producers on the South Fork. The pink lady slipper not only thrives in Hither Woods and the woody edges of Napeague, but there is a rare pale population of them ensconced in the dunes south of Montauk Highway. In dune slacks that often have cranberries and other treasures, one is apt to find the rose pogonia and the grass pink, or Calopogon, blooming in June.

A very rare orchid and one on the state’s endangered and threatened list is the dragon’s-mouth orchid, or Arethusa bulbosa. Also pink, its local habitat is the peaty top of ocean bluffs in Montauk, a perilous habitat if one wants to stick around, as those bluffs are eroding at a rapid rate.

In the woods of Northwest, where you might come upon the pink lady slipper, you may also lucky enough to find the lesser rattlesnake plantain (Goodyera repens) with its tiny white flowers clinging to an upright stalk and wide green white-veined leaves at the base.

If you are very lucky, you might find another, even rarer June bloomer, the tall whorled pogonia, Isotria verticillata, in the Northwest woods. It generally sports a single white flower.

Platanthera is the orchid genus with the most species, but is perhaps the rarest on Long Island. It does best in shaded, wettish pans. The rarest of these in New York is the pale fringed orchid, Platanthera pallida, the only populations of which are on Napeague and in Hither Hills. This species is yet to be recognized as bona fide, and for the time being it is considered an unusual population of another very rare New York orchid, Platanthera cristata, the orange crested orchid. Almost equally as rare as the latter is the yellow-fringed orchid, P. ciliaris.

This last one, along with the robust white-fringed orchid, P. blephariglottis, used to grow on the shoulders of several East Hampton back roads, along with bird’s-foot violets and lupine, but a vigorous shoulder rebuilding in the late 1980s did most of them in. There is still a meager population on a roadside of the yellow-fringed orchid. It goes back to at least as long as the 1880s when, perhaps, the East End’s first woman naturalist, Mrs. L.D. Pychowska, found it growing in Springs.

Three other members of this genus, the club-spur orchid, tubercled orchid and ragged-fringed orchid pop up here and there in wet spots such as the Nature Conservancy’s Sagg Swamp and in northeastern Springs, but are never common. Almost all of the Platanthera orchids bloom in mid-July and early August.

The next largest orchid genus on the East End is the ladies’ tresses one, Spiranthes. Members of this group have white flowers and bloom in late August or early September. A population of nodding ladies’ tresses grows on the shoulder of Montauk State Parkway and is mowed down by state highway crews every year just before or just after blooming. Slender ladies’ tresses are often found in old cemeteries and in marine grasslands, such as those at Shadmoor State Park and in the hills east of Lake Montauk. There are three ladies’ tresses species growing farther west on Long Island and we are looking for them here but have yet to find one of them.

Also keep your eyes out for twayblades of the genus Liparis, four species of which occur on Long Island but never commonly. The most unusual Long Island orchid is one found in Greenport, the crane-fly orchid, Tipularia discolor. It flowers leafless in the spring, then the leaves come out in late summer and persist throughout the winter. It’s a neat trick to finish the flowering-fruiting-seed-dispersal stage before the showing of foliage, ensuring that the species survives even if the leaves are foraged by deer, cottontails, and other animals.

And oh, yes, I forgot to mention two coralroot orchids, Corallorhiza — one of which, the long-bracted coral root, is among the most widespread orchids in America — and the autumn coralroot, which has crept into New York State and Long Island from the south. Lastly, we have the long-bracted orchid, Coeloglossum viride. All three are here but I’ve yet to see one and will keep looking.

Yes, we are still finding new plants that have yet to be formally documented for Long Island. So keep your eyes to the ground. You may be the next to identify a new-to-Long Island orchid. If, while looking, you come across a yellow-flowered orchid that you key out to a helleborine, don’t bother to report it. It is from Europe and since it was first discovered near Syracuse in 1879 as reported in Nelson and Lamont’s field guide, it has become our most common orchid. It’s in my yard and is liable to be found in your yard, as well, or, for that matter, in any abandoned city lot. It gets around.

Larry Penny can be reached via email at