Arboretum Paths: May is a great month for native orchids

Published 7:00 am Wednesday, May 20, 2015

This past Saturday, Dr. Wayne Morris, Associate Professor of Biology at Troy University, Alabama, led two field trips to explore the botanical diversity found in the Crosby Arboretum’s natural areas. It was a treat to hear his detailed descriptions of the plants encountered on our walks. Dr. Morris not only has an extensive knowledge of plants and their field identification, but has a long term relationship with the Arboretum natural areas, having performed graduate research work conducting plant inventories in the summer of 1986 under botanist Dr. Sidney McDaniel from Mississippi State University.

In the morning, we visited the 70 acre Hillside Bog Natural Area in northern Hancock County. Dr. Morris began his field walk on the highest point of the property, among a longleaf pine stand. Here, he discussed the characteristics of longleaf pine, the effects of our regular application of prescribed fire, and the fire-tolerant hardwood tree species in the understory such as black cherry, winged sumac, and sassafras. We then descended down a firebreak along the vast hillside pitcher plant bog, which contains both the pale pitcher plant (Sarracenia alata) and the tiny parrot pitcher plant (Sarracenia psittacina). Here, we enjoyed photographing three native orchid species – grass pink orchid(Calopogon tuberosus) rose pogonia orchid, also called snake-mouth orchid (Pogonia ophioglossoides), and rosebud orchid (Cleistesiopsis divaricate), and many other late spring bloomers.

Despite a rainy afternoon, we were able to walk through the Steep Hollow Natural Area, a 110 acre site in the southeastern corner of Pearl River County. The area is exceptionally rich in plant species and contains more variety of habitats than any of the other Arboretum natural areas, including a “quaking” sphagnum peat bog. Here, the group also observed the grass pink and rose pogonia orchids.

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In addition to enthusiastic conversations about the plants we were seeing, our group thoroughly enjoyed discussing other unusual stories centered about plants and oddities of nature, such as the explosive properties of Lycopodium powder (spores), the Wollemia pine, a “living fossil” discovered in an Australian canyon in 1994, a story of 2,000 year old Magnolia seeds that sprouted, yielding their an unusual petal arrangement, and the phenomenon of the Smoky Mountain synchronistic fireflies which returns every June (planning a vacation, anyone?).
Once you catch the “botany bug” and take a few runs down the delightful rabbit holes that can appear when you spend time with a group smitten with the topic, you may be hooked for life. Consider a story we innocently came across on our phone during breakfast with Dr. Morris, when searching for background on a botanist he had mentioned, Charles Bryson. We learned that in 2011, the USDA botanist was asked by Mississippi State University graduate student Lucas Majure to identify an unusual grass-like sedge found in a Meridian, Mississippi graveyard. Dr. Bryson identified the plant as (potentially invasive) blue sedge (Carex breviculmis), native to Asia and Australia, and not seen previously in the U.S. He believes the plant was introduced either by seeds trapped in clothing, or from soil left at the gravesite by persons traveling to the cemetery from all over the world to pay their respects to Kelly Mitchell, the “Queen of the Gypsies”, buried there in 1915 along with other members of a royal Gypsy family.
Secrets abound in the botany world. Throughout Pearl River County, there are hundreds of orchids that will wave at you from along the roadsides, but you probably wouldn’t even give lady’s tresses orchids (Spiranthes spp.) a second look. These small white spirals can be spotted easily once you know what to look for. A great place to see them is along the Walmart retention ponds, and near the ditch banks in front of the commercial property on the frontage road between Walmart and the Arboretum. Learn what they look like, and go on a hunt!

Grass pink orchid (Calopogon tuberosus) is currently blooming at the Arboretum and in the associated natural areas .  Photo by Pat Drackett

Grass pink orchid (Calopogon tuberosus) is currently blooming at the Arboretum and in the associated natural areas .
Photo by Pat Drackett

This Saturday, the Arboretum will hold a program at 10 a.m. all about our native orchids. Learn to recognize and enjoy many of the thirty species of orchids native to the Gulf Coast with Glen Ladnier, a long-time orchid enthusiast and member of the Gulf Coast Orchid Society. Glen will discuss habitats, plant and flower characteristics, and touch on common conservation techniques. After the talk, those who wish to take a short walk can see native orchids blooming in our nearby Savanna Exhibit. Arboretum members attend free and cost for non-members is $5. Call to register by May 22 to guarantee your seat.

Our Aquatic Plant Sale will be held Saturday, July 11, from 9:00 a.m. to 2 p.m., featuring many plants propagated from our exhibits. Pearl River County Master Gardener Eileen Hollander, an expert on Louisiana Iris, and Marc Pastorek, owner of the Meadowmakers native landscaping firm, will be giving presentations that day.

The Arboretum is open Wednesdays through Sundays from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and is located in Picayune, off I-59 Exit 4, at 370 Ridge Road (south of Walmart and adjacent to I-59). For more information about our programs and events, see the website or call 601-799-2311.

FOR FURTHER EXPLORATION: Research the various native orchid species discussed here. One place to begin is the Arboretum Plant List link on the Arboretum website’s home page. The data base is hosted by the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center, and contains information on many orchid species. To identify a native orchid you encounter in the field, visit

By Patricia Drackett