While I've been woozing over my jet lag, judy has been inspecting the increasingly prolific orchids in our Pennsylavina garden.
It’s that time of year at the lake when the hardy Epipactis helleborine orchid is in bloom again. It’s not a native orchid – only one Epipactis, E. gigantea, is a native American. The Broad-leaved Helleborine Orchid is from Europe originally, and, in fact, in some places in the United States (especially Wisconsin) this beautiful plant is invasive, so much so that it’s called the Weed Orchid. It’s been naturalized in the States since at least 1879. (I read that originally it was introduced by American colonists as a medicinal plant, theoretically good for gout. There are scientific studies showing its in vitro activity as an antiviral against HIV-1 and HIV-2 as well as influenza A.)
Here in our 1400ft (425m) high Pennsylvania mountain garden, though, the helleborine orchids just kind of pop up, usually one at a time in scattered spots, often gone the next year, and we are rather fond of the gently random nature. Although they spread by rhizomes, ours seem to spread more by seed, so clearly we have conditions conducive for the necessary mycorrhizal fungi that help the seeds germinate. Generally these orchids grow in semi-shade, but sometimes in lots of sun, and though supposedly Epipactis prefer moist – or even wet – environments, ours are exceedingly adaptable and drought-tolerant, a good plant for dry shade.
Helleborines make tall spikes of little half-inch to three-quarter inch (1.2-2cm) flowers; some of our plants have nearly 50 blooms, with the inflorescence reaching over 2ft (60cm) high. This year there seems to be a vast number of pollinators on the ones in the most shade (I’ve noticed bees on them), and the flowers, which open successively from the bottom up, are turning into seedpods almost immediately upon opening.
Last year I took some seedpods and scattered them around the various garden beds, so there are some unexpectedly nice woodland plant combinations this month. With green sepals and lavender-tinted petals, the helleborine flowers are looking lovely with a lavender-toned Japanese painted fern cultivar (Athyrium nipponicum var. pictum) that we’ve lost the tag of, amid the lacy sweet woodruff (Galium odoratum). A few are blooming under the Hydrangea arborescens ‘White Dome’, which is also in full flower, and one helleborine has struck up the tallest presence our main garden border in a fair amount of sun; it’s opening much later than the others.
The name “helleborine” supposedly is because they resemble hellebores. I don’t get it. No part of them, not the flowers, and definitely not the plant habit, look like hellebores in the least to me. I’ve even got the two growing side-by-side. Linnaeus must have been a little drunk on Swedish schnapps when he named the species.