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Nodding Ladies’ Tresses along Fen Trail, McKeon Reserve
Photo Credit: Kevin McKeon

By: Kevin McKeon, Maine Master Naturalist

Common Orchid Gives Off Uncommon Fragrance

We all know about Maine’s favorite orchid, the Lady Slipper, or “Moccasin Flower.” But it’s only one of 48 orchids native to Maine. An orchid that’s relatively easy to both find and pass by is the Nodding Ladies’ Tresses.

There are over a dozen species of Ladies’ Tresses in the United States and three listed in Maine. One is critically rare and one is possibly extirpated or regionally extinct. But the Nodding Ladies’ Tresses are a dainty white species, relatively common but often just given a glance because white flowers during August through November are common sights along many meadows, trails and roadsides. But for those with keen enough eyes, humble yourselves and get on your hands and knees to experience a rare thing with orchids—this 1½ foot tall lady with a long spike of flowers gives off a pleasant fragrance!

This delicate flower not only offers a scent to attract the three species of bumble bees that pollinate them, but also a sort of “landing strip” welcome mat—a slightly protruding and drooping lower flower petal called a labellum. The bee then enters the flower, also attracted by the iridescent yellow interior, to gather pollen and nectar. Thus pollinated, the ladies’ seeds are too small for typical gardeners to even notice. Interestingly, Nodding Ladies’ Tresses can also create viable seeds, without pollination, called agamospermy. Typically though, they’ll spread slowly by rhizomes to form colonies under optimum growing conditions. Rhizomes are typically thought of as roots but are actually underground stems, producing shoots and roots from which new flowers emerge.

Being a classic bog plant, it is best grown in shady, moist, boggy and acidic soils. But they’ll sprout up just about anywhere east of the Mississippi from northeastern Canada down to Kentucky. Under optimum growing conditions, Nodding Ladies’ Tresses spread slowly by rhizomes to form colonies. Folks who have opted to a “no mow lawn” and have let their lawns go to a wildlife-friendly meadow stage have reported these “ladies” sprouting among the other pretty flowers that emerge from such a thoughtful creation!

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