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In Search of the Orange Fringed Orchid aug 8 08

Sandwiched between trains rumbling by to the west and lawnmowers buzz-cutting suburban yards to the east lies the Bishop’s Bog Nature Preserve. Featuring a well-maintained, minimal-impact walkway through otherwise pristine territory, this remarkable tract in Portage, Michigan, is one of the brighter jewels in the city’s greenspace program. The bog’s exceptional quality was noted many decades ago in Clarence Hayne’s venerable book The Flora of Kalamazoo County, which cited the place as a wetland of unusual richness and floral diversity.

A three-quarter-mile hike takes you through varying territory, ranging from open sedge mat, to hardwood swamp, to blueberry thickets, to tamarack forest, to a leatherleaf bog dotted with small tamarack trees that give it an orchard-like appearance. In late May through early June, pink ladyslippers bloom by the hundreds beneath the huckleberry bushes. Carnivorous plants grow here as well, including two species of sundew and the northern pitcher plant.

But the pièce de résistance of Bishop’s Bog lies tucked away in the sunny interior. Where islands of feathery tamarack punctuate broad stretches of leatherleaf, you’ll find the orange fringed orchid. Early August is the time when this spectacular plant hits its zenith, splashing the rust-colored landscape with flamboyant, Crayola orange flower spikes.

In his masterful guidebook, Orchids of the Western Great Lakes Region, acclaimed Michigan orchidologist Frederick W. Case writes, “The [orange] fringed orchid is perhaps the most brilliantly colored of our native orchids. Its rich orange is nothing less than tropical.”

Tropical. Yes, that’s an apt description. With its raceme of luminous, miniature flowers that look for all the world like little orange birds, this plant is as exotic and vivid—not to mention downright casino holland beautiful—as any macaw that ever flitted through a South American rain forest.

Find the orange fringed orchid and you can truly say you’ve seen something special. Platanthera ciliaris is rare as Michigan orchids go. You can search through many a bog before you find it. The West Lake preserve, a mere half-mile away and joined by the same trail system, offers identical habitat, but it doesn’t contain the orange fringed orchid. That is a specialty of Bishop’s Bog.

Don’t get discouraged, though. The orchid has locations throughout southern Michigan, including Kent County. And its equally lovely and only slightly less uncommon sister, the snowy-colored white fringed orchid, forms a line across the western side of the state from Van Buren north through Kent, Ottawa, Montcalm, Newaygo, Lake, and other Lower Peninsula counties all the way up to the Mackinac Bridge. Numerous other members of the Platanthera clan range across Michigan as well, from the nondescript to the bedazzling and from the extremely rare to the relatively common. So keep your eyes open. Sooner or later, if you spend any significant time outdoors, you’re bound to get lucky. If you enjoy trout fishing, for instance, you stand an excellent chance of encountering the purple fringed orchid along some shady streamside. Provided you’ve got at least a basic appreciation for native wildflowers, trust me, you’ll find the experience rewarding.

But when it comes to pure spectacle, the orange fringed orchid is king, and now is the time of year when it reigns. Look for it along wild lakeshores when you’re out fishing, or amid the tamaracks in a sunny glad when you’re hiking. The Michigan outdoors rewards those who keep their senses dialed in, and you never know what you’ll find…you just never know.








Written by Dave.