Forest Preserve District of Cook County, Illinois
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Native Orchids
Nature Bulletin No. 527-A   Aprilo 27, 1974
Forest Preserve District of Cook County
George W. Dunne, President
Roland F. Eisenbeis, Supt. of Conservation

Do orchids grow wild in Cook County? Yes! To those of us who have seen only those elegant white. mauve and shell-pink creations that come out of hothouses and are sold in florists' shops, this is amazing. Yet it is true. Thirty kinds are native to the Chicago area.

Orchids are the aristocrats of the world of flowers and make up one of our largest plant families with nearly 20,000 known kinds. They include some of the most beautiful and highly prized flowers known to man. The seed pods of two tropical climbing species yield the vanilla of commerce. Most kinds are found in the tropics where many grow like air plants on the trunks of trees. However, all of our native species grow directly from the ground, preferring acid soils rich in peat, such as cool sphagnum bogs, along with pitcher plant, sundew, swamp blueberry and cranberry. They are difficult to grow, partly because the seeds are as fine as dust -- the smallest in the plant kingdom.

Perhaps no other plant family has suffered so much destruction by the upheavals involved in the expansion of our metropolitan area. Although several were abundant at one time, now, not a single species is common. For example, there used to be thousands of Showy Lady's Slippers growing in the dune region of northern Indiana where the great steel mills are now located. The greatest variety is still to be found in the wilder parts of the remaining dunes. Fortunately, about 40 years ago, Cook County set aside some good orchid habitats as forest preserves -- early enough to protect a number of kinds.

The favorites of plant lovers are probably the Lady's Slippers, of which there are several -- Yellow, White, the Showy -- which is magenta in color -- and the Stemless of acid bogs, better known as the Moccasin Flower.

Our most colorful orchid is the Orange Fringed, which stuns you with its brilliance when you happen to come across it for the first time. Rivaling it in beauty is the rare Purple Fringed Orchid. These two and several other close relatives take their name from the fringe on the bottom petal. The Coral Root Orchids are unique because none of the plant parts are green. Lacking chlorophyll, they cannot manufacture their own food and so mast get nourishment from dead plant material.

The Grass Pink Orchid of moist grassy meadows can be seen at Illinois Beach State Park north of Waukegan. Occasionally found with it is the Snake-Mouth Orchid which has a delightful fragrance resembling the odor of fresh raspberries. June is the best month to see most native orchids in bloom but our commonest kind, Ladies' Tresses, blooms in autumn.

All orchids have leaves with parallel veins like those of lilies and irises. Their flowers have three sepals and three petals; but one petal, the lowest, is out of all proportion to the others and is called the "lip. " This is the most obvious of all orchid peculiarities. This lip is actually the upper petal which has been twisted halfway "round." It serves as a landing strip, restaurant and signboard for bees. The orchid possesses an elaborate and foolproof system which insures that its sticky pollen is carried from one flower to another by insects.

Orchids are quite frequent in the bogs of the north woods of Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota.

The lady's slipper is protected by Illinois state law.

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