Northern Michigan University student an avid botanist
In search of: orchids
MARQUETTE — They’re botanical jewels — and they’re a passion of Northern Michigan University senior biology major Nate Martineau.
Martineau presented a program on orchids, mostly found in wet or moist habitats, on Wednesday to the Laughing Whitefish Audubon Society at the Peter White Public Library.
Why his interest in orchids?
“They’re the most diverse plant family on Earth,” Martineau said. “The reason I first got into them was because it was shocking to learn that there were 55 of them in Michigan, but the big reason is there are so many species that are so showy and so stunning. It’s hard not to want to see them.”
In Michigan, 55 species are native to the state, with only one non-native species.
And they come with names such as showy lady’s-slipper, rose pogonia, orange-fringed orchid and ladies’ tresses.
Martineau presented photographs and maps about Michigan’s beautiful, but often little seen, orchids.
One orchid he called “really special” to the Upper Peninsula, where it’s found in cedar swamps, is the round-leaved orchid.
“Despite being bright white, it can be pretty hard to spot,” said Martineau, who pointed out that it’s known to grow in six locations — one in Schoolcraft County and five in Delta County.
That’s because of climate change, he said.
Regardless of its numbers, Martineau gets a kick out of the flower’s appearance.
“It’s fun because it looks like a little man with giant ears,” Martineau said.
He called the fairy slipper, or calypso slipper, “just perfect.”
The plant grows in mossy areas under black spruce trees, he said, and on Isle Royale — which has a lot of this type of boreal habitat — it can be abundant.
“You get this absolutely spectacular colonies of thousands,” Martineau said. “It’s really something to see.”
Other colonies in the state, unfortunately, are declining but are being monitored, he said.
“It might not be too long when you don’t have this plant in Michigan anymore,” Martineau said.
Orchids come in many unique shapes, with parts sometimes resembling wings or pouches.
That means they come with unique names. Take the frog orchid, for example.
“They say the flower looks like a frog,” Martineau said of the plant, which grows mostly along old logging roads. “I’m glad other people can see it.”
Its name not withstanding, the ram’s-head lady’s-slipper is tiny enough to fit inside a nickel, he said.
Even though it’s called the dragon’s-mouth orchid, the flower can be bright pink — not exactly the color of the mythical beasts.
The flowers of a padleaf orchid, according to Martineau, are about an inch-and-a-half long in gigantic spikes, plus the plants have “impressive, shiny” leaves.
Sometimes other special plants can be found with orchids.
South of Gwinn near the sewage ponds, he said, is a giant fen complex where his friends discovered russet cotton-grass, marking the first time the species had been seen in Michigan.
Martineau said that in the U.P., Grand Sable Dunes is a good place to find orchids; if people know what they’re doing, they can see 30 or 31 species in one day.
There’s a reason for that diversity. Lake Superior is a volcanic basin, meaning the rock doesn’t have many nutrients, but Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore is located with them, he said.
“The waves batter it every year,” Martineau said, “and the main current along the south shore of Lake Superior is eastward. So, you have waves hitting these sandstone cliffs, water traveling east to the dunes, and then wind and waves blowing those nutrients in the form of spray up over the dunes and depositing them in those little pockets of forest.”
That makes varied habitats for orchids such as the ram’s-head lady’s-slipper.
“Grand Sable Dunes is by far just the capital of the world for this species,” Martineau said.
If people want to stick to the Marquette area, they can view ladies’ tresses that Martineau noted can be seen growing along the Dead River mouth in August to September.
Anyone wanting to know more about rare plants in general in the state can learn about the Michigan Natural Features Inventory at https://mnfi.anr.msu.edu, which lists plants and animals. Its mission is “to guide the conservation of Michigan’s biodiversity by providing the highest quality scientific expertise and information.”
That expertise and information soon might include that of Martineau, who expects to perform plant surveys for the MNFI upon graduation in May.