In early April, nearly one hundred Galearis spectabilis, the Showy Orchis, began to bud and bloom on a steep gorge within seventy five yards of the Wells house at Rockcliff Farm. The most remarkable part of this orchid irruption is that a blooming Galearis spectabilis had not been seen in recent years. It was not found during an extensive vegetation survey of Rockcliff Farm done in 2005, and had not been reported from the many wildflower walks conducted there over the past 10 years. Below is a blooming Showy Orchis from this group.
So what were the circumstances that made this sudden bloom possible?
One clue comes from observations made last year. In early April 2016, a group of plants with two round, wide leaves were seen on the rich hardwood slopes of a steep-walled valley located about a mile from Rockcliff Farm. One of these, with a developing bud, is pictured below. In the photo, there appear to be three leaves because the plants are often right next to or on top of each other. So there are actually two plants in the photo.
The plants were visited five days later to observe the bloom, but unfortunately deer had eaten the entire group of plants. The same plant pictured above is shown below.
This year in early March, about 30 orchids were found in the same area. They were covered with plastic deer screen to protect them from browsing. In April they began to bud and bloom into typical Showy Orchis.
But what about the orchids at Rockcliff Farm, that were not protected against deer browsing because the orchids were not known to be there? One possible explanation is the serious wildfire that occurred at the B. W. Wells S.R.A. in early March, just adjacent to Rockcliff Farm. The fire started in the main power line due to a tree falling across electrical wires. The fire burned down to the edge of the lake from both sides of the power lines along the road, and was hot enough to kill trees and destroy all shrubbery and ground cover. Thus the hypothesis is that this fire destroyed most of the deer browse in this area, and the deer moved on to greener pastures, leaving the orchids unharmed.
In fact, over-abundant deer populations have been blamed for orchid declines, and reductions in deer density have been associated with surges in orchid populations. (See Knapp, W. and Wiegand, R. 2014. Orchid (Orchidaceae) decline in the Catoctin Mountains, Frederick County, Maryland as documented by a long-term dataset. Biodiversity Conservation. Volume 23, Issue 8, pp. 1965-1976.)
Below, buds can be seen developing in two intertwined Showy Orchis.
The upper hood of the flower is formed by lateral petals and sepals. The lower petal is large and white (a good landing place for bumblebees) and forms a spur at the rear.
At the rear of the white lip is a hole that leads to a small nectar chamber (nectar reward). Bumblebees can extend their tongues through the hole to reach the drop of nectar. In the photo below, a small fly appears to have found the nectar.
Although Showy Orchis is very widespread, extending all the way from Canada to Georgia and into the Midwest, it is considered uncommon to rare in most of its range.