An Orleans resident shares his passion for wild local orchids

Photos by: Rich Eldred

Local wild orchids have an elaborate pollination process and very specific habitats. Many thrive in alkaline soil, contrary to the Cape’s acidic soil. Depending on the variety, the wild orchids on Cape Cod grow in woodland areas, bogs,  dunes and hollows, dry or infrequently mown areas such as cemeteries, and sunny, wet spots. Now and then, Eldred spies an orchid growing in a home garden. “I know where to find them,” he says. “I know when they bloom.”

The Pink Lady Slipper, the Cape’s most common wild orchid, is a woodland variety that thrives in open places and in undernourished soil. This beauty has just two leaves, centered with a stalk topped with a single puffy pouch that is formed from a single petal. The flower blooms at the end of May.

Other than the Pink Lady Slipper, Eldred says seeing a wild orchid in this area is an event. There are several varieties known to have grown in this area at one time that are, he says, near impossible to see.

Eldred says his personal Holy Grail is the extremely rare Dragon’s Mouth, an orchid that resembles a crocus and has been found in quaking bogs; the flower is currently on the state’s “threatened” list. The bloom’s fragile beauty has proved its downfall: In the late 1800s, young boys in the Northeast dug up the orchids to sell them in cities. One was found in Falmouth in 1911, yet no more local sightings were reported until one in Provincetown in the 1980s, followed by another a few years ago on Martha’s Vineyard. “They are almost extinct on the Cape,” Eldred says. “You might see them in Labrador or Newfoundland.”

Rare wild orchids inspire controversy and intrigue. The pale-green Bayard’s Adder’s-mouth orchid—another that Eldred hopes to see one day—was spotted once on an old wooded road near the Barnstable-Sandwich border. Adding to its elusive nature is the fact that this  orchid—and many others—flowers for just a few weeks each year. “People debate whether it’s a true species—or just another adder’s-mouth,” Eldred says with a smile.

Following the trail of the wild Cape Cod orchid may be the most enticing journey of Eldred’s life—and his hunt is far from finished. Eldred has seen eight of the existing 26 or 27 varieties of local orchids and pursues his next great find with passion. Every walk he takes offers another opportunity.

There is something ineffable about orchids that makes them so coveted. “People get very passionate about orchids,” writer Susan Orlean says. “They just seem to get hooked.” Orlean’s gripping 1998 novel, The Orchid Thief, focuses on one man’s obsession with orchids.

One may describe Eldred in a similar way. “Orchids will be there,” he says, “then they’re not. They are disappearing from development and changes in the landscape. They are ephemeral.”

Mary Grauerholz is a freelance writer from Falmouth.