Wild orchids in the autumn garden

A wonderful surprise awaited me in the garden the other day — tiny white flowers on spikes, blooming in a spiral pattern along the tall, green stem. I guessed they were orchids and bending down close to the ground, I detected a sweet scent. Their flowering at this time, when everything is so dry, might have been triggered by the sudden drop in temperature, as well as the recent rain. In bud, they look like asparagus spears pushing up among the fallen pine cones and mown sere grass. I am glad now I had the grass and weeds mown earlier, or these flower spikes would have been lost among the taller grass stalks or else cut down had mowing been done about now.


It took me a while to put a name to this plant, as I was not quite sure it was an orchid. I checked among geophytes (bulbs) first, with no success. I eventually managed to find it among Spanish endemic orchids in the website of the Spanish National Research Council (Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas). They are known as autumn lady’s tresses, Spiranthes spiralis (also Spiranthes autumnalis) and are found throughout the Mediterranean, as well as Europe, North Africa, Asia, North America, and even Australia and New Zealand.

These lady’s tresses can teach us a lesson or two about resilience and patience — it takes 8 years from germination to bloom! And about cooperation as well: the seed does not germinate without an underground fungus partner, known as mycorrhiza. The lady’s tresses have chosen just one area in my garden to flourish in, giving an excellent indication of the amount of water available in the soil there, as it is said to only grow well where the soil is neither too dry nor too moist. That is such a great thing to know at this stage, at the start of my garden planning. And it just so happens that in that area, I had envisioned a Japanese type of planting under the tall pines.

Another marvelous characteristic of Spiranthes spiralis species — some prefer to flower clockwise up along the spike, some grow counterclockwise, and a few grow only along one side of the spike.  Why? To spread their chances of being fertilized — apparently bumblebees can be very picky, only liking to fly in one direction as they go about gathering nectar.

So grateful for this wondrous autumn surprise!



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