Plant of the Week
hooded ladies’-tresses (Spiranthes romanzoffiana)
by Charmaine Delmatier, 2016
Hooded ladies’-tresses (Spiranthes Romanzoffiana) is a terrestrial monocot in the orchid family, Orchidaceae, and is known to occur in many of the lower forty-eight states, reaching into a large part of Canada and Alaska. In Europe, this small orchid extends from Great Britain to Ireland. According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) there are 59,300 species of monocots worldwide, and the largest family in this group by number of species are the orchids with more than 20,000 species. Within the orchids, the genus, Spiranthes, generates a modest 25 species, and is distributed across the temperate regions of North and South America, Eurasia, and Australia.
According to Charles J. Sheviak and Paul Martin Brown in their latest treatment in Flora of North America, hooded ladies’-tresses is easily distinguished with its strongly-hooded white flowers, coupled with abruptly reflexed lips. Then combine a geometric braid-like design of tightly-spaced single white flowers ascending spirally along a single flowering stalk and it’s hard to confuse it with most other orchids. In California and adjacent southwestern Oregon, its distinct floral design gives way to variability exhibiting yellowish flowers, loosely spiraled inflorescences, and spreading lateral sepals. The entire plant is not a tall orchid, barely reaching a height of 3-21 inches. The flowers are diminutive, most no longer than 0.5 inches.
The spirally-flowered terminal spike sometimes resembles neatly braided hair; hence the common name ‘ladies’-tresses’. The genus, Spiranthes, derives its name from the Greek derivative ‘spiera’ which means coil or spiral, and from the Greek derivative ‘anthos’ meaning flower. Looking back in history to around 1830, imagine a well-known Russian scientist roaming the Alaskan countryside and you will see Count Romanoff (Nikolai Rumantzev), a citizen from Kotzebue, and the man with whom the species received its name.
Hooded ladies’-tresses is a lush, native, perennial orchid that prefers moist to shaded places in conifer forests and deciduous woodlands, bogs, and swamps and spreads with creeping fleshy tuberous roots. Along the coastline, one might see them nestled in moist coastal bluffs and dunes.
Orchids have become an important source for medicinal and therapeutic treatments for such ailments as tuberculosis, paralysis, stomach disorders, chest pain, arthritis, syphilis, jaundice, cholera, acidity, eczema, boils, and inflammations. Interesting, Spiranthes has also gained a strong reputation for treating venereal disease.