February 2018

Indiana has more native orchids than Hawaii

This Hoosier Gardener column was published originally May 29, 1994 in The Indianapolis Star

Who says Indiana isn’t paradise?

Certainly not orchid lovers. Hawaii has nothing on Indiana when it comes to native orchids. Would you believe there are three species of orchids that occur naturally in Hawaii, while Indiana is home to 42?

Despite their number, it’s unlikely we’ll be greeted at the airport with a lei of puttyroot or lady’s slipper, however.

We have to work a little harder, almost developing a sixth sense to find these jewels of nature that are every bit as exotic as we think orchids should be.

Michael A. Homoya, a botanist with the Indiana Department of Natural Resources, has written a beautiful and easy-to-use book that’s a must for wildflowers wanderers (and wonderers). Orchids of Indiana is, as Homoya calls it, a “labor of love.”

He first “met” a native orchid in 1970, when he and his mother, Marcia, wandered into Jackson Hollow, a sandstone gorge in southern Illinois, near where he grew up in Carterville, Ill.

Memorable day

Although it was a foggy day in the silent hollow, Homoya found it an unforgettable experience. At one point, he stumbled onto a rattlesnake plantain orchid. It might as well have been the orchid’s namesake, because the encounter left an indelible mark.

“(The find) illustrated that wild orchids do indeed occur in our temperate soil. Although I saw many other spectacular things that day, including rare ferns and phenomenal rock formations, it was the rattlesnake orchid that so transfixed me. My passion . . .was born,” Homoya writes in the preface.

The 40-year-old naturalist has retained that enthusiasm through the years, as evidenced recently during a trek through Eagle Creek Park. Park ranger Fritz Nerding led the way to two (one surprisingly large) patches of twayblade (Liparis liliifolia). One of the plants was budded up, ready to show its translucent purple flowers. Nerding also saw, and showed to others, the tell-tale leaf of the puttyroot orchid (Aplectrum hyemale).

But do not be deceived. All of these plants are hard to find, primarily because there is so much greenery in the woods. Sometimes it’s easier in winter. The puttyroot, for instance, has a winter leaf (hyemale means winter).

Homoya give hints of where to find Hoosier orchids, but he’s not specific in his book. He and other naturalists fear that revealing exact locations of native plants will encourage people to dig them up.

“They just aren’t easily grown” outside their natural habitats, Homoya said. “The best advice for our native orchids is to let them grow in the wild,” he said.

History and description

The book includes some history and background on orchids in Indiana and how to find them. There are plenty of illustrations and photographs (many by Homoya’s co-worker and fellow naturalist, Lee Casebere) that help identify the orchids.

The book has a chapter on each of the more than 40 Indiana orchids, a little history about each one, a description, blooming period, range and habitat. Each entry has a map of the state with dots in counties where that particular plant has been found, but no exact locations.



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