Remains of summer

Helleborine, Epipactis helleborine

Back in August, I posted a photo in one of my Monday Miscellanies of an orchid that I’d noticed growing in the shade of the pines along the side of the driveway. The orchid was a Helleborine, Epipactis helleborine, a European species that was introduced to North America in the late 1800s. It was first found in New York in 1879, and over the past 100+ years has efficiently spread throughout a most of the northeast, as well as parts of the west. The Orchid Society of the Royal Botanical Gardens (based in Burlington, Ontario), has a species database of wild orchids of Canada. There, they note the name of this species to be Broad-leaved Helleborine, but since it’s the only member of the genus established over here, often the first part of the name gets dropped.

Helleborine, Epipactis helleborine

Yesterday afternoon I took Raven for a walk into our back fields. For a change of pace, I decided to wander through some of the wet cedar groves at the back of the property, now mostly dry with the onset of winter. I’d only been through them once or twice. The last time I explored I found a wild turtlehead hidden in a small glade in the middle. Most of the vegetation has now died back, and the grove was mostly empty. I noted a few bones, perhaps left by a coyote who had retreated here to enjoy his lunch, a number of rotting mushrooms now so past their best that they would be difficult to identify, and a patch of dead helleborine.

I had walked a few metres beyond the helleborine before I had the thought: “Hey, wait a minute – why am I letting lazy Brain lead this tour? Get back there and check those out, or at least take a photo of record for the blog.”

Helleborine, Epipactis helleborine

So I turned around and came back for another look. Even in death, its dried, shriveled leaves still call to mind the form of a wild orchid. You can see the broad, ridged leaves that alternate up the base of the stem, and the brown seed heads hanging where the flowers once grew.

Helleborine orchid, Epipactis helleborine

In summer, the flowers are understated, at least compared to the ladyslippers many call to mind when thinking of wild orchids. They have a similar form, though, with a bulging, cupped lower lip and a spreading hood that shelters the reproductive parts. A single stem holds many flowers, a characteristic shared among many non-ladyslipper orchid genera. The flowers bloom through the summer, June to August, sometimes lasting into September. This photo was taken mid-August; I can’t recall now for how long I continued to see the plants in bloom after that.

Helleborine, Epipactis helleborine - seed pods

Come fall, little remains of the flower that might suggest the orchid of the summer. I was intrigued to notice that the seed pods had split open, forming little cages in which the seed sat, piled at the bottom. They reminded me of little lanterns, the candle glow flickering through the bars of the enclosure.

Helleborine, Epipactis helleborine - seed pod and seeds

I plucked one for a closer look. The seeds were fine, light and downy, reminding me a little of cattail fluff. It was easy to see how the wind might blow through the open seed pods, picking up the weightless seeds and dispersing them through the surrounding forest. In combination with the fact that it can grow and survive in a range of habitats from wet to dry and open to wooded, it’s no wonder the plant has had such success colonizing North America.