Ladies’ Tresses

In late July Leonard and I visited Ankeny National Wildlife Area near Salem OR. We planned a “bird hike” because this late in the season wildflowers are usually rather scarce. Much to my surprise we found three “new” wildflowers that I never photographed before along the Rail Trail, named for the Virginia rail (bird), not because it is a Rails to Trails site. My favorite is ladies’ tresses (Spiranthes romanzoffiana), a member of the Orchid Family (Orchidaceae) that has eluded me for years.

A native perennial that arises from fleshy, tuberous roots, ladies’ tresses occur singly or several in a clump. The 2 to 5 long, narrow basal leaves usually dry up by flowering. Above the base the leaves are reduced to bract-like sheaths.

The inflorescence is a dense spike with flowers arranged in spiral rows, supposedly resembling a woman’s braided hair, thus the common name ladies’ tresses. The white, creamy or greenish-white flowers have three sepals, three petals and bilateral symmetry. The tips of the two lanceolate, petal-like sepals on the sides often curl back slightly. The three true petals fuse to form a hooded vase with the finely-fringed lip petal constricted near the tip. The stamen, style and three-lobed stigma form a column atop the inferior ovary. The pollen is aggregated by a sticky substance into a pollinia, which can be seen atop the column. Each flower has an associated bract.

Ladies’ tresses fruits are dry three-chambered capsules containing minute, powder-like seeds. Lacking an endosperm to provide nutrition, the seeds obtain nutrients for germination from relationships with specific mycorrhizae (root fungi).

The habitat of ladies’ tresses is dry to moist woodlands, streamside areas, lakes shores, bogs and marshes from low to mid elevations. It is native to Canada, Alaska, Western and Central United States, parts of New England, the North Mid-Atlantic, Ireland and England.

Nikolei Rumliantzev (1754 – 1826), a Russian patron of science, is honored by the species designation. I was confused as to how the name Rumliantzev could result in romanzoffiana. Apparently Rumliantzev was formerly known as Nikolei Romanzoff. The genus name derives from the Greek “speira” meaning “coil” and “anthos” meaning “flower” and refers to the spiral arrangement of the flowers in the ladies’ tresses inflorescence.

When hiking one never knows what faunal or floral wonder may unexpectedly appear. Leonard and I never have a dull walk.


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