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Clintonia Umbellulata: The Orchid That Wasn't

Posted: February 14, 2017

Do you have a gardening or plant wish list? You know all those plants you want to cultivate, meet and become incredibly knowledgeable about?
Photo submitted by: Laura Hlusko, Mercer County Master Gardener

Photo submitted by: Laura Hlusko, Mercer County Master Gardener

One of my plethora of goals has been to find a North American native orchid. No reason beyond wanting to find one. So imagine my excitement when, in 2014, I find leaves protruding from the ground that are eerily similar to what I’ve become accustomed to knowing as an orchid.

I found this plant completely by accident as I was hiking through a path my parent’s sheep had cut through the woods. Just 20 feet from my normal route laid this landmine of a plant. After a mere month of searching, I had found a colony of rare orchids! Yet, they had long since bloomed and the only hint of flowers or seeds was a long, dry stalk protruding from the center of the leaves. So I waited. I spent all winter excitedly waiting for spring when I would prove to myself and the world that I had found a patch of native orchids. A patch! And guess what? Two days before returning to college for my summer classes, it bloomed. Those first two seconds when I realized it wasn’t an orchid, but a lily, were disappointing to say the least. Yet, in return, I’ve come to find a native plant that is not at all lacking in intrigue while my quest for a North American, undiscovered orchid still remains.

So how did I know immediately that this was a plant in the Liliaceae and not in the Orchidaceae family? The flowers. Imagine a typical Easter lily. Six petals (two whorls of three) of relative same shape and size, six stamens, and radially symmetrical (actinomorphic). That’s what these flowers resemble, just on a smaller scale. By contrast, orchid flowers are zygomorphic (bilaterally symmetrical) and highly evolved with various frills, shapes, bulges and colors. You’re unlikely to find one with such free, visible, unprotected or shielded reproductive parts as the photo shows. Additionally, I realized the leaves were not stacked together or opposite as most orchids. So what species was this lily?

Clintonia umbellulata is a native, perennial herbaceous plant that thrives in shady conditions of woodlands. While the blooms only last from May through June, the glossy 6-20” basal leaves persist throughout the growing season. The flowers, though small, are intriguing. The tips hold a green color and the white petals contain some speckling or streaking of light pink colors and tones. Another interesting feature is the fruit takes on a black color when mature. Though not critically listed in Pennsylvania, it is a threatened species in Ohio and vulnerable in New York.

So what should you take away from my experience? Don’t be afraid to misidentify a plant. It’s better to go out into nature with the purpose of learning to become a botanist than to fear being wrong. The best way to learn is through trial and error. Take photos, create drawings, write down any interesting characteristics. Don’t stop trying. Don’t be overwhelmed.

Submitted by: Laura Hlusko, Mercer County Master Gardener