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Rare, wild, and ephemeral - Orchids - Cape Cod LIFE Publications

Rare, wild, and ephemeral — Orchids

An Orleans resident shares his passion for wild local orchids

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Cloaked in an aura of mystery and sculptural beauty, orchids tug at more hearts than perhaps any other flower. And how could they not? Behind their lush looks is a shocking story; no other flower has inspired such vivid stories of obsession and drama. Orchid hunters have been eaten by tigers, vanished in jungles, and even held hostage.

While Rich Eldred understands why orchid growers are drawn to these exotic tales, the South Orleans resident says he loves orchids more for their physical properties: they are elegant, evolved, and delicate.

“My fascination with orchids?” Eldred, 61, reflects. “They are the most highly evolved group of plants. The seeds are the smallest seeds in the plant kingdom, like dust.” Offering this description, Eldred claps his hands lightly and runs his fingers through the air like rain. “They produce tons of seeds,” he adds, “but don’t grow plants that often.” Even the most common local wild orchid—the Pink Lady Slipper—requires a full 15 years from germination to flowering plant.

A full-time reporter for The Cape Codder newspaper, Eldred is also a local orchid expert who has cultivated brilliant detective skills over the years to locate Cape Cod orchids in the wild, which total just 26 or 27 types. By comparison, there are 210 orchid species in the United States and Canada and more than 25,000 growing around the world; almost half of that total is found in the tropics.

Educated as a botanist and an ecologist, Eldred gave a talk titled “Orchids of Cape Cod” at the Cape Cod Museum of Natural History in March; the presentation was one of several lectures offered in the Brewster museum’s ongoing “Gardening for Life” series. Eldred also leads regular botany walks for both the Harwich Conservation Trust and the Botanical Club of Cape Cod and the Islands.

The wild orchid’s elusive nature is part of its allure. Eldred says he has fallen under the same spell that has transfixed millions around the world. “Orchids seem to come and go,” he says. Cape and Islands orchids, which measure six inches in height to two or three feet, require very specific growing conditions. That fact, combined with their exotic looks, make orchids special even in the eyes of locals who would rather stay inside on a Sunday afternoon than traipse through woods or meadowlands looking for orchids.

While local wildflower experts agree that the number of wild orchids found on Cape Cod is likely declining—some falling to extinction—explorers have made some discoveries in recent years. Eldred says the Small Purple Fringed orchid, for example, was spotted once, locally, at the Sandwich Fish Hatchery in the mid-1980s. Eldred was not that lucky individual, but he has been lucky in coming across other rare orchids and has a history of his own discoveries stamped in his memory—and his notebook.

Eldred once sighted about two-dozen Tessellated Rattlesnake Plantain orchids, an evergreen, near his house. “I didn’t see a one last year,” he says. He also discovered two stems of Little Ladies Tresses—at one time on the state “watch” list—growing in an unused driveway next to a garage in Orleans.

Alternately, the Leafy White orchid, with its graceful white blooms that resemble a nun’s wimple, has eluded Eldred; in fact, the flower has reportedly only been sighted once on the Cape, in a cluster of 17 plants in an old shell mound in Sandwich. “There might be none left anymore,” Eldred says.