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Plants of the Western Slope Aug. 2, 2017

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Photo by Al Schneider© Lady's Tresses

Lady's Tresses

I'm at home again, and I'm reliving my recent trip to the San Juan mountains. What a glorious trip it was! Flowers, flowers, flowers. I wondered if they would ever end! But of course, they did end, and I was too tired to chat with my fellow botanists. I just kept quiet and listened. Many of them have more recent backgrounds in botany than I do, so I often find myself doubtful to use my usual references.

But I think one of the spectacular plants was the Lady's Tresses, and it's in my copy of Colorado Flora: Western Slope. I can even see the flower now (it's on the mountain and I'm at my desk!). Pure white with green stems and leaves with the lovely flowers scattered along the stem.

Properly it's Lady's Tresses or Spiranthes romanzoffiana. The name comes from the arrangement of the flowers (in a spiral) and the specie name is for Count Romanzoff. During the conversation on the way home, I came to realize that the Orchid family is currently under revision -- a good cautionary sign! The orchids are considered to be the world's largest family with some 20,000 species (sunflowers are the second). Nearly everyone recognizes an orchid, but the variation of life-style and structure among the plants is even more amazing.

Many occur in the rain forests of the world, resting on rocks or trees (epiphytic). In temperate zones they grow in the ground (mycorrhizae). Still others may grow in dead, decaying matter (saprophytic).

A simple generalization helps: three sepals, three petals with one or two stamens. Two of the petals are small and the third, the upper one, is often greatly enlarged or ornamented. But frequently the whole blossom is inverted 180 degrees! Now the top petal appears on the bottom!

This petal may be sack-like such as the Lady Slipper. There may be one large flower or a spike of many small flowers, and the blossom may have a spur or not. To describe each of the varying conditions within the blossoms themselves a specific vocabulary that has grown over the centuries is required. Orchids are a study unto themselves! It used to be a rich-man's hobby but now ordinary folks can purchase orchids in the grocery store.

As I drive home thinking "orchid," I stop to gaze at the Grand Mesa. In my mind's eye, I walk in search for Ladies Tresses. The blossom is so small -- the two small petals are 1/8 inch and the big one is less than 1⁄2 inch.

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Evelyn Horn, Plants of the Western Slope
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