Stalking Indiana's wild orchids
Meet Southern Indiana's most elusive and exotic flowers
Dried leaves and twigs crunch beneath our waterproof boots, the only sound besides the chirping birds and croaking spring peepers that signal the arrival of spring. Ash trees tower overhead, bare of leaves, and sunlight streams down to the forest floor. Three-leaved trillium sprouts up underfoot, joined by the tiny blooms of salt-and-pepper and spring beauty, the first of the spring ephemerals to grow and flower before the trees' leaves block the sunlight.
Mike Homoya keeps his eyes on the ground, scanning. He doesn't often speak--hunting down this native Indiana orchid is my job today, and he's just along for the ride. Spanning 32 acres of moist temperate forest, the Hougham Woods Biological Field Station in Johnson County is home to a recorded population of aplectrum hyemale, also known as Adam-and-Eve or the puttyroot orchid. Rather than having a growing season from spring to fall like most plants, puttyroot consists of one overwintering, pinstriped basal leaf from October until late April. In May, the leaf will wither and die, and a flowering stalk will emerge. To pass the orchid-hunting test set before me by the Indiana Department of Natural Resources botanist, I must find this four-inch long leaf. But today, a half hour into my walk around the preserve, the puttyroot orchid is nowhere in sight.
Orchids are one of the largest families of plants on Earth, numbering around 30,000 species that grow in a wide variety of habitats across the globe. But don't just think steamy greenhouses or lush paradise-- Indiana is home to 43 native orchid species. Tropical Hawaii has only three, so to properly introduce yourself to the orchid family, look no further than the hills, marshes and woods of Southern Indiana.
The orchid has long been prized for its mysterious, complex beauty; in his book "Orchids of Indiana," Homoya dubs them "floral royalty in the kingdom of plants." The family reigns with its variety: Platystele jungermannioides flowers measure as small as the head of a pin, while Grammatophyllum papuanum can reach heights of 15 feet. Vanilla planifolia gives us fragrant vanilla extract and the flowers of Drakaea mimic the shape and appearance of a male wasp, down to the shiny head and furry body.
The flashy orchids often seen in Hawaii are actually exotics-- they're not even the varieties native to the state. In reality, native Hawaiian orchids are very small; most people wouldn't recognize them as an orchid.
Some of Indiana's species are unrecognizable, too, Homoya says. They're just green, from the stems, to the leaves, to the flowers. A small, modestly colored plant may not make the best prom corsage, but upon closer inspection, even these orchids are worth noticing.
Take Coeloglossum viride, or frog orchid for example. Rarely have two individuals of the plant been found together, so its unsociable nature makes finding the frog orchid more rewarding. Its flowers are green spikes, but look closely and you can spy small frog-shaped petals layered tightly in a column. Compare this orchid to the showy Cypripedium, or lady slipper, whose large, brilliantly colored blooms often attract the most attention of any native species. In the Indiana orchid family, Cypripedium may be the beautiful sister, but leaving out Coeloglossum would be neglecting a plant worth the extra effort.
Before orchids there were crawdads. Growing up in small town Southern Illinois, Mike Homoya lived surrounded by nature, and the crawdads swimming in a drainage ditch beside his house became his first introduction to wild things. It didn't take very long to walk a railroad track or ride a bicycle to get out of town, so Homoya soon found more nature to be interested in beyond his backyard. He explored Shawnee National Forest, hiking its trails and cultivating his childhood interest into a lifelong appreciation for the great outdoors.
"The more I saw, the more I wanted to learn about these natural things, and what comes with that is a desire to protect natural areas," Homoya says.
Protecting wild things and the natural areas they live in became Homoya's life work. Hired by the Indiana Department of Natural Resources as a botanist and ecologist in 1982, he quickly took to the job. With a packed field bag complete with a notebook, compass, poncho and camera, Homoya and his colleagues in the Division of Nature Preserves tracked down endangered and rare plant species in the state, identifying their habitats in order to preserve them. As he completed his fieldwork across the state, Homoya continued to find orchids, one of the wild things from his Illinois youth that kept his interest.
Homoya describes his first encounter with orchids not as a sighting but as a meeting. On a winter hike as a high school senior in Southern Illinois, Homoya met the evergreen leaves of the rattlesnake plantain orchid and became fascinated by a plant that could still be so showy in such cold temperatures. The orchid family became his interest and hobby. Soon after moving to Indiana and the DNR job, he decided to write a book on orchids and began documenting each native species he found over the next ten years, eventually checking off all 43 still living in the state.
"I was so impressed by the fact that orchids grow here in our part of the world when most people think they're only in the tropics," Homoya says. "They're just mysterious and uncommon so there's that rarity factor I suppose, almost like finding a treasure."
Published in 1993, Homoya's book "Orchids of Indiana" has since become the premier orchid field guide, listing the plants alphabetically, identifying their blooming periods and habitat locations, and offering detailed descriptions of what makes each species different from the next. It's the only complete guide, and since its publication, Homoya has heard from plenty of people who share his interest of orchids.
"There are people out there who stalk them in a sense," Homoya says.
Nowadays, rather than digging them up, orchid enthusiasts will go and photograph them. Digging up specimens not only damages the natural habitat, but it's also pretty pointless, Homoya says. Wild orchids don't do all that well in pots. Instead, people tend to bring their cameras out and contain the flowers' beauty in an eight-by-ten glossy matted photograph. One such orchid fan lives somewhere in Northwest Indiana, Homoya says. The man contacted Homoya as the state's orchid expert, asking if there were any places he could go to see certain species. His goal? To go around the state and photograph every species of native orchid. It's nothing more than a hobby, but it's one more human becoming seduced by the irresistible charm of the wild orchid.
To find a specific plant specie in 36,418 square miles of Indiana landscape means becoming a detective. The clues aren't found through fingerprints and anonymous tips but instead inside the musty-smelling file cabinets of herbariums, collections of preserved plant specimens. At Indiana University, the Deam Herbarium inside the Smith Research Center holds about 140,000 pressed and dried specimens, about half of those native to Indiana. It's not a gallery open to the public but rather a research museum and organizational filing system--a library of dead plants.
In any given year, only a handful of people stop by to visit the herbarium. The Deam Herbarium is not a hub of activity-- it serves mainly as a research facility open to graduate students and visiting specialists. But the plants aren't alone; herbarium director Eric Knox presides over the filing cabinets preserving the history and documentation of once wild things, available to those who come find them.
Dressed in a splashy Hawaiian shirt and jeans, Knox pushes up his wire-framed glasses as he talks. Unlike gardens or greenhouses full of living specimens, the herbarium lacks the upfront visual display of plant diversity, but that's a good thing.
"At the herbarium we want dead flat plants--dead is good in our book," Knox says.
Dead flat plants provide information on flower shapes, leaf arrangements, seed structures and more. Maybe most important for botanists like Homoya, the person who collects the plant takes precise notes, leaving clues about the living species in their natural habitats.
I visited the herbarium looking for orchid specimens, the first step in narrowing down the search for a wild orchid. Although his own work focuses on other plants, Knox understands the draw of the orchid-- it has a rareness factor to it, he says, since you don't often find specimens together in one spot. The flowers often attract dedicated pollinators like bees that evolve with them, ensuring the plant's survival over time. But here in the herbarium, preserved orchids will last just about forever.
Knox leads me to filing cabinet number 29, stacked full of filing folders--manila-colored if the species is from Indiana, orange if it's found elsewhere. Cabinet 29 holds families Iridaceae (irises) and my sought-after Orchidacae, species Aplectrum hyemale to Zeuxine. He slides out the manila folder labeled Aplectrum hyemale, careful to lift it at the bottom to keep the contents from spilling out. Under the herbarium's fluorescent lights, I see a puttyroot orchid for the first time. The collector's notes date it Oct. 5, 1927, almost 86 years old. But the key fact isn't its age, it's where it was found. "Location: Monroe Co., Ind. Near Griffy Creek. Habitat: Rich woods. South end of 1st ridge west of 2nd Huckleberry Hill," the notes read. If I was going to find a puttyroot, the herbarium and its specimen just narrowed down my search.
Bare-branched trees filter sunshine down to the forest floor, but it's not illuminating any orchids. Scientific names for plants have a funny way of sounding like magic spells. A-plec-trum hye-ma-le, I chant silently, willing the plant to appear somewhere, anywhere, in my line of sight. No such luck. Since Hougham Woods didn't have any entries in the herbarium to point me in the right direction, I'm on my own.
As we walk, Homoya points out the expansive wintercreeper, an invasive groundcover that spreads from a nearby neighborhood and is taking over native habitats. It's choking out the rest of the plant growth as it stretches across the ground. An hour passes and I'm afraid I'm choking, too. I can't seem to spot even one of the 305 puttyroot specimens recorded for this preserve.
"I thought we would have found one by now," Homoya says, shaking his head.
Orchids act sometimes like Goldilocks, growing in habitats not too cold, not too hot, not too wet, and not too dry. But it's not bears that may be affecting these plant's survival in the wild, it's climate change, says Ellen Jacquart, an Indiana stewardship director for the Nature Conservancy. As rainfall and temperatures change and the plants are no longer as adapted to a particular area, Indiana's 43 native orchid species may dwindle. Only time will tell.
Most of the trees in Hougham Woods are ash. Native to the state, the ash tree is widespread in natural forests, but it's also often planted in urban areas because it tolerates adverse conditions. But the millions of ash trees growing in Indiana forests and lining city streets are under attack. The Emerald Ash Borer, an exotic beetle brought over from Asia, threatens to kill the trees with its destructive feeding. With no method to stop the insect's spread, Hougham Woods' future is uncertain. In 20 years, Homoya says, all the ash trees could be gone. And if the habitat were disturbed, the puttyroot orchid would disappear not just from my sight, but altogether from this region.
Branches snag my hair. I lose sight of Homoya, and I still haven't seen one measly little puttyroot leaf despite walking the entire perimeter of the preserve.
"Still no luck?" Homoya asks as we reconvene.
I'd done my research. I knew what I was looking for. I found the proper habitat--moist forest, but no standing water. Hougham Yet the plant was still evading me. I wonder how long Homoya will stay out looking for an orchid with me. Puttyroot or bust, I thought.
"Well, we're about back to where we started," Homoya says.
I look up to see the white Ford Edge SUV through the trees, parked in the grass near the preserve. I sigh, and look back down. And do a double take.
"Wait, I think I found one!"
One, meaning three shriveled basal leaves of aplectrum hyemale, my trophy puttyroot, complete with a few holes bugs chewed into the leaves.
"Congratulations, you've found an orchid," Homoya says, as we sit down on a fallen log to rest.
My puttyroot may be a little banged up, not in bloom, and a little less attractive than other members of its orchid family, but hey, this is no time to be picky. I'm officially a successful orchid hunter.