Plant of the Week
Showy Orchid (Galearis spectabilis (L.) Rafinesque)
By Sue Trull
Showy orchid is a beautiful pink-purple and white orchid of deciduous woodlands in the eastern United States. Also known as showy orchis, purple-hooded orchid, or gay orchid, it is a perennial monocot of the Orchid family (Orchidaceae).
Showy orchid is a smooth, stout-stemmed, somewhat succulent, erect plant, 4-8 inches tall. Showy orchid has a cluster of long fleshy roots. It has two basal leaves, which are fleshy, oval to elliptic, and clasping the stem. The leaves are produced annually, and persist until October or November. First year plants have only one foliage leaf.
Showy orchid blooms in April to June, before the forest canopy is fully leafed out. The inflorescence is a terminal cluster of three to ten or more blooms. There are large flower bracts, lance-shaped and dark green, longer than the flowers. The flowers are 3/4 inch to over an inch long, appearing to be two-parted with a pink to light purple upper hood (formed by the joined sepals and lateral petals), above a white lower petal which forms a spurred lip. The flowers can be lightly fragrant.
Showy orchid provides a wide landing platform (the white lip) for its pollinators. Bumblebees are the main pollinator, visiting for a nectar reward and collecting the orchid’s pollen parcel (pollinia) in the process. Seeds are produced in a seed capsule that is held erect above the plant. Galearis persists through the winter as a rooted tuber.
Showy orchid, like other orchids, produces small seeds with no energy reserves. The germinating seedlings need to develop a relationship with a fungus, in their roots (mycorrhizae) in order to obtain nutrients for growth. Only certain fungi will develop this relationship, and for showy orchid, they appear to be only fungi in the genus Ceratobasidium.
Showy orchid prefers rich soils in moist areas such as near streams or vernal ponds. It can be associated with calcareous sites. It often grows with spring wildflowers such as hepatica, spring beauty, trillium, and jack-in-the-pulpit. It can be locally common but more often occurs in small populations. It does not tolerate much competition.
Showy orchid is listed as Endangered in Maine and Rhode Island, Threatened in Michigan and New Hampshire, and Exploitably Vulnerable in New York. Factors affecting its viability include forest canopy removal, changes in hydrology causing sites to dry out, and collection.
The plant is named for its hood-like flowers: “galearis” derives from Latin, referring to the helmet like hood. The species epithet, “spectabilis” means showy or spectacular, also from the Latin.