Botany Blog Plants of the Northeastern U.S.

August 19, 2021

Fringed Orchids

Filed under: Uncategorized — admin @ 15:22

There are seven (recognized) species of fringed orchids in New York and two hybrids. Two controversial species are discussed as well. Our two most common species are P. blephariglottis and P. lacera, the others being rather local in distribution, some extremely rare, and one extirpated.

The flowers of ragged fringed orchid (P. lacera) vary from white to somewhat greenish and have a highly dissected lip. This species occurs in the widest range of habitats, sometimes occurring in open areas of swamps and in fens, but often in wet meadows, pastures, old fields and occasionally even in lawns. It does best in areas that are mowed once or twice a year at times before and after the main growing season. This species is known to hybridize with the two purple fringed orchids, though only the hybrid with P. psycodes (P. ×andrewsii) has been documented in NY. Despite being one of our most widely distributed orchids, it tends to occur in small numbers where it is found and populations are sometimes ephemeral.

Another relatively common white-flowered orchid is white fringed orchid (P. blephariglottis). The flowers of this species are shallowly fringed and pure white in color. This species prefers acidic habitats like bogs and poor fens and frequently occurs with Sphagnum spp. Though quite local, it can sometimes be abundant in the right habitats.

Rounding out the white-flowered species is the eastern prairie white fringed orchid (P. leucophaea), the only federally listed (threatened) member of this group that is now considered extirpated from the state and has a state rank of historic (SH). There are historic collections of this species from only three counties in north-central NY – Onondaga, Oswego, and Wayne. Although this species has prairie in its common name, in the northeast it primarily occurs in wet graminoid fens. There is a healthy population of this species just across the border in Canada and might still occur in remote fen complexes in the northern part of the state. It is thought that collecting may have played a role in the disappearance of this species (since some of the historic locations are still intact), so if you happen to find it only take a picture and report to the NY Natural Heritage Program.

A close relative of P. blephariglottis is the orange fringed orchid (P. ciliaris). Historically known from locations scattered across the state, there are currently only three known extant populations, all on Long Island and they are all quite small. As a result, this species is listed as endangered in the state and has a state rank of S1. Like P. blephariglottis, this species has a shallowly fringed lip and prefers acidic habitats, but rather than white the flowers are deep orange. Both species flower primarily in July in NY and in areas where they occur together the two species can form the hybrid P. ×bicolor (Fig. 2). Though this hybrid has been documented on Long Island it has not been seen recently.

The only other orange-flowered species in NY is the crested orchid (P. cristata). This is a smaller species historically known from Queens and currently only known to occur in Suffolk County on Long Island (state endangered, S1). While similar, it differs from P. ciliaris in that the flowers tend to be a bit paler in color, the spur is only 5-9 mm long (vs. 18-28 mm in P. ciliaris) and the rostellum lobes are slender and pointed downward (vs. triangular and directed forward). It occurs in similar habitats to P. ciliaris and occasionally the two are found together with P. blephariglottis.

A controversial species related to P. cristata is P. pallida, which has pale yellow flowers but is otherwise similar to P. cristata. When recognized it is considered to be endemic to dry dune slopes of Long Island and is known from no other location, though some botanists consider it to be just a pale form of P. cristata. As described it is most similar to the hybrid of P. blephariglottis and P. cristata (P. ×canbyi), which is not documented in the state, and it does not occur with the former putative parent. Platanthera pallida is said to be distinguished from P. cristata by a recurved, fringed lip and shorter nectar spur, with a tendency to grow in drier habitats.

The last two species in NY, P. grandiflora and P. psycodes (Fig. 3), differ from all the others in having purple flowers (rarely white) and are rather widely distributed in the state but also tend to be quite local. While easy to tell apart from the other orchids, these two species are frequently confused with each other.

Fig. 3. P. grandiflora (left), P. psycodes (middle), closeup of flower of P. grandiflora (top right), and closeup of flower of P. psycodes (bottom right). In P. grandiflora, note how the rostellum lobes (structures on either side of the stigmatic surface directly above orifice) are thin, triangular, and spreading. Also note the relative length of the anther sacs (darker structures on the upper margin of lobes). In P. psycodes the rostellum lobes are thicker (rounded on the outer surface), closer together, and the anther sacs are shorter. Also note that even though the opening to the spur (orifice) is round in P. grandiflora, it appears elongate in the picture due to the viewing angle. To view this feature accurately requires looking directly into the spur.

Platanthera grandiflora is known as the greater purple fringed orchid, though the size of the plant and inflorescence do not differ significantly from P. psycodes (only the individual flowers are slightly larger), and is slightly less common in the state. Platanthera grandiflora typically flowers in late June, a few weeks earlier than most populations of P. psycodes, and this can be a starting point for identification. While P. psycodes usually flowers in early to late July, occasionally populations (or sub-populations) have been found flowering earlier, so phenology alone is not completely reliable.

Characteristics often cited for telling these two species apart include the shape of the orifice (opening to the spur) and the depth of fringing on the lip, however these often prove unreliable. The shape of the orifice in P. grandiflora is round, while in P. psycodes it is more rectangular or even dumbbell-shaped. It is not that this is not a reliable characteristic but it is often misinterpreted because it must be viewed straight on and is rarely clear in photographs and can be difficult to interpret in diffuse lighting. The most reliable characteristic for identification is the shape and the position of the rostellum lobes relative to the anthers (Figs 4-6). This is described in detail by Stoutamire (1974) and is highly recommended reading for anyone interested in these orchids. The paper by Stoutamire does not include a key, so I am including one based what he described. While the shape and position of the rostellum lobes is difficult to describe, it is readily apparent once the concepts are understood and compared.

Pollinaria 3 mm long, viscidia separated by 4-5 mm, held in front of the column on lateral rostellum lobes; opening to the spur (orifice) circular, unobstructed P. grandiflora

Pollinaria 1.5-2 mm long, viscidia separated by a space of 1-1.5 mm, partially enclosed laterally by projecting rostellum lobes; opening to the spur oblong, often partially constricted by a projection on the upper portion of the entrance or just inside the orifice (the degree of constriction variable) P. psycodes

Only one hybrid has been documented involving these two species in New York, P. ×andrewsii, which is the hybrid of P. lacera and P. psycodes. Platanthera grandiflora is also reported to hybridize with P. lacera forming P. ×keenanii. A hybrid of P. grandiflora and P. psycodes is known as P. ×enigma and would presumably be difficult to identify given how similar the parents are.

There is actually a third purple fringed orchid, Shriver’s (P. shriveri), that has been somewhat controversial. It was first described from the Central Appalachian Mountains (Brown et al. 2008) and there have been a few possible sightings in New York that need further scrutiny. It is most similar to P. grandiflora but with a more open inflorescence and differences in lip shape and dimensions. It is said to flower later than P. grandiflora where the two occur together, from mid-July to early August. For those interested, a dichotomous key for separating P. grandiflora from P. shriveri can be found in Brown et al. (2009).

Literature Cited:

Brown, P.M., Smith, C., and Shriver, J.S. 2008. A New Species of Fringed Platanthera from the Central Appalachian Mountain of Eastern North America. North American Native Orchid Journal 14(4): 239-252.

Stoutemire, W.P. 1974. Relationships of the Purple-fringed Orchids Platanthera psycodes and P. grandiflora. Brittonia 26(1): 42-58.

July 16, 2021

Purple Bergamot: Hybrid or species?

Filed under: Uncategorized — admin @ 21:19

For a number of years I have been growing the two common eastern species of Monarda, M. didyma and M. fistulosa. Monarda didyma (scarlet beebalm or Oswego tea) is an important early summer food source for ruby-throated hummingbirds. It begins flowering in late June but continues into July.

The flowering period overlaps with the start of flowering of M. fistulosa (wild bergamot) so there is opportunity for hybridization between the two species. Their preferred habitats, however, differ quite a bit. Monarda didyma tends to prefer moist alluvial soils and is often found in moist woods or thickets, along streambanks, or the shaded margins of wetlands. Monarda fistulosa tends to prefer somewhat drier habitats and is often found on hilltops, in meadows, or on dry gravelly river banks or shores. Those latter habitats, as well as human disturbance, have the potential to bring M. fistulosa into close contact with M. didyma.

Back to my garden, last year a Monarda appeared that has flowers that were intermediate in color and other characteristics between M. didyma and M. fistulosa.

The only explanation for these plants was that they were a hybrid of the two species and the characteristics seem to match the description of M. media in the literature.

Getting a little more specific, beyond the color there are some differences in the corollas of M. didyma and M. fistulosa. Monarda didyma has a corolla that is more than 3 cm long that is hairless on the upper lip.

In contrast, the corolla tube of M. media and M. fistulosa is up to 3 cm long. In M. fistulosa the upper lip is bearded while in M. media it is glabrous or only sparsely hairy.

A number of papers have been published that propose that M. media is a hybrid of M. didyma and M. fistulosa (Egler 1973; Whitten 1981). The fact that these intermediate plants only seem to occur where the ranges of those two species overlap would seem to support that hypothesis. The habitat for M. media is said to be dry to moist open woods, fields, and roadsides, which is rather non-specific and could easily occur in close proximity to both putative parents. It has also been suggested that in the southern Appalachians what is called M. media may be the hybrid of M. didyma and M. clinopodia. While Monarda media is treated as a distinct, rare species in a number of states, very little information is available regarding existing populations that would provide support for recognition as a distinct species, e.g. population size, proximity to populations of M. didyma and M. fistulosa, how long these populations have persisted, ect. If Monarda media is a good species, then the name for the hybrid of M. media and M. fistulosa would be Monarda × mediodes (Duncan 1959), though some sources recognize both as hybrid taxa.

Literature Cited

Duncan, W.H. 1959. A naturally occurring F1 hybrid of Monarda media and M. fistulosa. Rhodora 61: 302-305.

Egler, F.E. 1973. The hybrid nature of “Monarda media Willd.” Castanea 38(3): 209-214.

Whitten, W.M. 1981. Pollination ecology of Monarda didyma, M. clinopodia, and hybrids (Lamiaceae) in the Southern Appalachian Mountains. American Journal of Botany 68(3): 435-442.

July 15, 2020

Geum aleppicum × canadense

Filed under: Uncategorized — admin @ 12:03

This rare hybrid has been reported in the literature a few times but has never been given a formal name. To see for myself what it looks like, a couple years ago I manually deposited pollen from Geum canadense onto several flowers of Geum aleppicum at a site where both occur. I marked the flowers that had been pollinated and returned later in the season to collect seeds.

I was able to grow out about 30 plants from the seeds and at the end of June of this year they finally bloomed. While the majority of plants appear to be straight G. aleppicum, one plant is an obvious hybrid. Success!

Overall the plants are most similar to G. aleppicum but with paler flowers that begin flowering around the same time as G. canadense (G. aleppicum starts flowering slightly earlier). Also notice that the petals are a bit more slender than is typical of G. aleppicum.

The following image shows the fertile fruit of G. aleppicum (left) and the sterile fruit of G. aleppicum × canadense (right). Geum hybrids are typically sterile, one exception being the hybrid of G. rivale and G. urbanum (G. × intermedium).

The foliage of the hybrid is similar to Geum aleppicum but the upper leaves are less divided. They are also not as dark green. It remains to be seen if they will darken when dried, a characteristic typical of G. aleppicum.

This last image shows the flower of the hybrid (middle) with flowers of the two parents, G. aleppicum (left) and G. canadense (right).

September 9, 2019


Filed under: Uncategorized — admin @ 20:54

Several years ago I started unknown Hibiscus from seed assuming it would be H. moscheutos. Each year the plants would grow about 5 feet tall but never flowered. One finally flowered this year and something seemed a bit odd about it. I believe it Hibiscus laevis, a related species with narrower, often hastate leaves that are smooth on the lower surface, and flowers with darker red centers. Would include a picture of the leaves but they have been badly eaten by caterpillars.

Just happened to pass a large population of Hibiscus moscheutos a couple days ago so I made a run out to get photos of the real thing. This species has more solid pink flowers, wider leaves, and the leaves tend to have a fuzzy pubescence on the lower surface. Otherwise it is very similar and has a range that extends further into the Northeast.

May 20, 2017


Filed under: Plant-Insect Interactions,Uncategorized — admin @ 15:21

Cecropia moths (Hylaphora cecropia) have started to emerge from their cocoons. Here is a caterpillar in its fourth and final instar toward the end of August of last year.

And this is what they look like after cocooning. The leaves are maple leaves, one of the primary food plants of the caterpillars.

Mating adults after their wings expanded in May.

May 2, 2015

Trailing arbutus and twinleaf

Filed under: North American Native Plants,Uncategorized — admin @ 18:12


Trailing arbutus (Epigaea repens) has just started blooming in Central NY. It is a member of the Heath Family (Ericaceae) found in semi-open areas on acidic, mesic to dry, sandy or gravelly soils. It seems to prefer slopes, perhaps because on level ground the evergreen leaves would otherwise covered by falling leaves from the canopy above. It can be locally abundant and has a NY state rank of S4.

Twinleaf, (Jeffersonia diphylla), is also flowering now. It is most common in west central NY and is listed as threatened in the state (S2). The genus is named for our third president.

February 28, 2011

Herbarium sheets: lessons from the past

Filed under: Uncategorized — admin @ 01:47

I am in the process of digitizing and cataloging the vascular plant specimens housed in the herbarium at SUNY Cortland. Some of the specimens were not mounted properly or demonstrate other issues that may not have been obvious to the collector at the time. The purpose of this article is to describe a few of these issues and explain how to avoid them to improve the longevity of mounted plant specimens.

A standard herbarium sheet is 11.5 x 16.5 inches. Larger sized sheets do not fit properly into a folder and are prone to damage, and are also prone to damage other specimens as they jostle the other contents of the folder in which they are stored.

A 100% rag content sheet is optimal but 25-50% rag paper can be used. Of greatest importance is that it be acid-free. Not only will an acid paper deteriorate over time, but it will also damage any specimens that it comes into contact with. Below is an example of such a sheet that was damaged by a smaller sheet placed on top of it. You can see the damage as a darker rectangle in the lower left of the sheet.

Damaged herbarium sheet

Another problem with some of the specimens was the use of inappropriate mounting materials like scotch tape. The degree of deterioration varies. The plastic tape used to affix the label on the specimen below can be seen to have degraded badly and darkened the paper of both the herbarium sheet and label to a large extent.

Aged plastic tape

If tape is to be used to help fix the specimen to the sheet it should be acid-free gummed linen tape. Some art suppliers carry this archival tape. Only thin strips are used and potentially the tape could be removed at a later date by re-softening the adhesive with water. The following image shows the tape used to mount a specimen that is now over 100 years old. As you can see it is still in excellent condition, however the paper on which it was mounted was not of the best quality so it has darkened quite a bit.

Properly mounted specimen

A final note regarding adhesives. The one most often used is polyvinyl acetate glue like “white glue” (Elmer’s). White glue is sensitive to heat and moisture and will degrade in UV light, but these should not be an issue in a properly maintained herbarium. I have found that when other, unknown adhesives had been used that they had turned brown, became brittle, and the specimen or label it was used to mount had fallen off. When using white glue it is usually diluted with a small amount of water (less than the amount of glue or it will be too thin), and dabbed gently onto the specimen with a paintbrush. After gluing the specimen and label onto the paper the entire sheet should be covered with wax paper and gently pressed and left to dry overnight. The latter step assures the best contact with the sheet and keeps the specimen and paper from curling as it all dries. Bulky specimens can be further reinforced with a little thread sown through the paper and around the stem. As evidenced by the plants in our collection a properly mounted a specimen will last for at least a century.

And don’t forget to include relevant information on the label. I have come across far too many specimens lacking dates and complete location information. Without these a specimen is largely useless for scientific study.

December 22, 2010

Christmas Cactus and Christmas Fern

With Christmas just a few days away I figured it would be a good time to discuss some of the plants often associated with the holiday. Besides trees, probably the one that most often comes to mind is the poinsettia (Euphorbia pulcherrima). The poinsettia is native to Mexico and South America. It is a member of the spurge family (Euphorbiaceae), many members of which produce milky latex sap and showy bracts (modified leaves) that surround one or more floral structures called cyanthia. A cyanthium is composed of a single female flower partially surrounded by a cup-like involucre topped by five simplified male flowers. In the poinsettia the cyanthia are yellow-green and the floral bracts resemble the leaves but are large and scarlet red.

A long-standing myth is that the poinsettia is poisonous due to the death of a 2 year old child in 1919 that was falsely attributed to ingestion of this plant.  While the plant is not considered edible, the toxicity of the plant is quite low and at worst it may cause upset stomach or vomiting if eaten.

Another popular plant this time of year is the Christmas Cactus, which is actually represented by a few species mostly in the genus Schlumbergera. In the wild they are epiphytic cacti, growing on trees in forests of South America. What appear to be leaves are actually flattened stems. Sections of the stem root easily in a loose potting mix that includes a good proportion of sand. Flowering is triggered by short days and long nights, as is the case with poinsettia. While I don’t have any pictures of the latter, I did manage to find a few pictures of a Christmas Cactus in bloom.


Christmas Cactus


I will end this with a perhaps less commonly known plant associated with the holiday, and one that is native to Eastern North America. The Christmas Fern (Polystichum acrostichoides) is so named because it was once popular for use in Christmas decorations due to its tough, evergreen leaves that can be found throughout the year, even under snow. It grows on well-drained soils in rich, shady woodlands.

Christmas Fern

July 18, 2010

Bittersweet Nightshade

Filed under: Naturalized Plants,Uncategorized — admin @ 19:12

Bittersweet Nightshade (Solanum dulcamara) is an herbaceous vine in the potato family (Solanaceae). It is native to Eurasia but has naturalized widely in North America. It occurs in a variety of habitats provided sufficient light is available. Several features aid in identification. First are the purple flowers with five reflexed petals and bright yellow stamens

Bittersweet Nightshade Flowers

The fruit matures from green to yellow, orange, and finally bright red and resembles a small tomato (also in the potato family). The plant gets its name from the reputed taste of the fruit, which is said to be bitter at first but later sweet. While the fruits are said to be less poisonous than the rest of the plant, I have never dared to taste one as all parts of the plant contain solanine which is extremely toxic. While poisonings are rare, fatalities have been known to occur.

Bittersweet Nightshade Fruit

The leaves are somewhat arrow-shaped and often have two or more lobes at the base. The color is dark green and they seldom have evidence of herbivory. The smell of the leaves is perhaps this plant’s most distinguishing characteristic, similar to tomato but much more foul and disagreeable. This trait has come in handy when it has been necessary to identify seedlings in the field.

Bittersweet Nightshade Leaves

July 5, 2010


Filed under: North American Native Plants,Uncategorized — admin @ 22:20

Study plants for any length of time and one will eventually hear the phrase “sedges have edges”. This is because the stems of sedges typically have three angles, distinguishing them from the terete (round in cross-section) stems of grasses. For quite some time that was about the extent of my knowledge of this group of plants. A few years ago I decided to get serious about learning sedges, particularly the species rich genus Carex. One characteristic of plants in this genus is that the achene (seed) is surrounded by a sac known as a perigynium (plural perigynia). Close examination of these structures and the scales subtending them is often key to proper identification of plants in this genus. The perigynia are relatively large and inflated in Shining Bur Sedge (Carex intumescens), shown below.

Shining Bur Sedge

Recently I have been adding photographs and descriptions for Carex species to my Plants of the Northeastern U.S. website. One goal has been to document important details of the inflorescence using a dissecting scope including a ruler marked in millimeters. Recently added pages include those for Carex brunnescens, C. debilis, C. deweyana, C. disperma, C. hystericina, C. interior, and C. radiata.

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