They seduce. They elude. It’s a marvel they can grow at all. Come as we explore the flamboyant enigmas of our woods, bogs and meadows.
Northern Michigan has fertile ground for our own indigenous species—terrestrial flowers that have adapted to our climate and weather. Calypso seems to need cool soil, which is why it is particular to the cold, dry thickets on the limestone and dolomite shores of Lake Superior. Large colonies with hundreds of plants can occur on Isle Royale. Calypso’s namesake is the gorgeous nymph in Homer’s Odyssey—the one who waylaid Ulysses on his journey to Ithaca by luring him to her island. The flower tricks its pollinators with color: Bees are drawn to the brush of yellow hairs on the lip of the plant. Calypso has become a rare and elusive sight in Northern Michigan—perhaps, some speculate, an early indicator of global warming.
In summer a spike of miniature downy flowers grows from the rattlesnake plantain’s single woody stalk. Some say the flower’s name comes from the snakeskin appearance of its mottled leaves, which were gathered and used by early settlers to soothe the skin and mucous membranes.
Perhaps it’s only natural, a human’s powerful draw to the wild orchid. Something that appeals to our vanity—one highly evolved species taking a long look at another. As flowering plants go, orchids are at the top of the stack. They dispersed through millions of years to widely different habitats, and so became isolated from their closest relatives. Their genetic diversity means they produce some fascinating species, flowers that can vary in size from the diminutive calypso (whose nodding blossom measures only a few centimeters) to the vanilla plant (whose vines can grow several feet). Susan Orlean wrote about the intriguing forms in The Orchid Thief: “There are species that look like butterflies, bats, ladies’ handbags, bees, swarms of bees, female wasps, clamshells, roots, camel hooves, squirrels, nuns dressed in their wimples, and drunken old men.” The grass pink, whose cluster of similar petals and sepals take the form of a neat equilateral triangle, is no less captivating. Look for the grass pink in bogs and swamps during early summer.
Found right at center of the flower is the apparatus that distinguishes orchid from other plant families: the column. That is, the orchid’s reproductive parts—the stamen and pistil—fused into one handy tool. No other family of flowers has such a device. The yellow fringed orchid is threatened in Michigan.