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Monday, June 9, 2014

Wild Woodland Orchids

Spiked Crested Coralroot, Hexalectris spicata var. spicata

A colorful group of native orchids called Hexalectris or coralroots are found mainly in the mountains of northern Mexico and West Texas, but we are fortunate enough to have at least two species that grow in our area.  The name Hexalectris literally means ‘six cock’s combs,’ referring to the six prominent ridges that were thought to run down the length of the flower’s lower lip.  Despite this name, most flowers have only five or seven ridges.  

These orchids are micro-heterotrophic, which describes a plant that gets some or all of its food from parasitism on fungi rather than from photosynthesis.  Most Hexalectris orchids have only been discovered and studied in the last fifty years.  They depend heavily on an extremely delicate balance of environmental factors, which means they are not always observed every year, and it makes them impossible to transplant from the wild.

In our area, April through August is the best time to spot the Spiked Crested Coralroot (Hexalectris spicata var. spicata).  An uncommon orchid, it is most often found in the leaf litter on the wooded limestone hillsides and canyon slopes in oak-juniper habitats of the Edwards Plateau.  Also called cock’s comb or brunetta, the blooms of the Spiked Crested Coralroot grow on a tall, leafless, fleshy-pink stalk.  Each bloom has creamy yellow petals and sepals striped with brownish-purple, and the central white lip is adorned with five to seven wavy crests of deep, royal purple. 

Giant Crested Coralroot, Hexalectris grandiflora

Recently, the first record of the Giant or Largeflower Crested Coralroot (Hexalectris grandiflora) was discovered in the Balcones Canyonlands Preserve in Travis County.  Previously thought only to grow in the Davis and Chisos Mountains of West Texas, the bright pink, leafless stalk of this species grows from 10 to 24 inches tall.  Along the stalk, vivid pink flowers bloom with a white mark in the center of an elaborately shaped, three-lobed lip.  This coralroot also flourishes in our oak-juniper woodlands, and is thought to bloom from June to September.  Other common names for this beautiful wild orchid include Greenman’s hexalectris or Greenman’s cock’s comb.

These unique wild woodland orchids are uncommon to rare in our area, and together they help define the true nature of the Texas Hill Country.  Monitoring and preserving them is not only good for the sake of maintaining biological diversity and understanding changing environmental conditions, but for the future beauty of our ecoregion as well.