An Orchid Obsession

Hunting native Minnesota orchids was hardly an obsession. Until four years ago. Until the Dragon’s Mouth, a delicate and small purplish bog orchid, appeared in my consciousness.

Just to be clear, there was no intention whatsoever of becoming Minnesota’s John Laroche, the main man in “The Orchid Thief”, Susan Orlean’s book about he and a group of Seminoles who apparently were poaching rare native orchids in the Fakahatchee Strand State Preserve of south Florida. I just wanted an opportunity to see the Dragon’s Mouth in person, to photograph what appeared to be a beautiful and interesting looking rare orchid, one that was purplish with a “tongue” with intriguing hues.

This was an odd obsession, and one so unexpected. My rather limited knowledge of native orchids rarely extended beyond Ladies’-Tresses and various Ladyslippers until I decided to take a leg-stretcher on a trip to Fort Francis, Ontario, for a special fly fishing fly-in trip four years ago. I had stopped at Bemidji Lake State Park where Harold Marty, then the “CSI” guy for northern area for the Minnesota State Patrol, and his wife, Kim, introduced me to the bog walk many years before. All I could recall was that it was an elevated boardwalk over and through a bog. The walk through was impressive enough that on my return I stopped again. Since my camera was in the shop for cleaning and repair, I made due with my cell phone photographing the emerging Stemless Ladyslippers and the brightly blinding yellow Marsh Marigolds.

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Once again there were ample Stemless Ladyslippers along the bog walk, and I can’t seem to skip past a single one without stopping for a photograph.


On the way out I stopped to talk with the park naturalist who showed me photographs that included the Dragon’s Mouth orchid, a rare and beautiful orchid found only in the bog ecosystems. This was the start of my obsession. She suggested I was too early. For the next two years I stopped while driving through on subsequent fly fishing trips, each seemingly a week later than the previous years, again without seeing one. Each time the obsession grew. Last summer we made a special trip just for the Dragon’s Mouth and missed once again, although I had ample opportunities for the Stemless and even picked up some very nice early Pitcher Plant images.

This time would be different. Later in the year helped along with some “investigative” research. Meaning that a few days ago I called the park naturalist and she said a Dragon’s Mouth had been found, adding that you needed to really know where to look to find it. She also thought by the weekend there might be more. On Saturday we headed north, stopping en route at the very beautiful Tamarac National Wildlife Refuge and Itasca State Park. Saturday was also a day I normally wouldn’t have walked out of the house with a camera since there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. Not a one. I could only hope that shooting in RAW at a low ISO that there would be enough digital information to reduce the contrast while pulling out the shadow detail. For this type of photography there isn’t anything more blessed in my opinion than a cloudy day!

Once at the boardwalk my “inner Laroche” took over as I scanned every square inch of the visible bog for a spot of violet. The entire boardwalk might be a quarter mile in length, and I literally took it one horizontal board at a time, scanning inch by inch on both sides of the walkway. Nothing. That isn’t true, for there was ample Stemless, and the Pitcher Plants were in a beautiful full bloom. As I reached near where my companion, Mary Gafkjen, was waiting, I was feeling rather discouraged. Then, just before reaching her bench I spotted a tiny patch of purple poking through some boggy grasses. Using a very long lens, I was hopeful. I couldn’t get a clear view of the plant. It was just a blotch of purple amongst some distant, dense spindly green grass.

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Many of us wondered about these blooms, which were quite numerous. Ah, but they were Pitcher Plants, whose leaf structures are insect traps. I love bogs and the different plants you see there.

As we sat I briefly considered breaking the rules to tiptoe across the bog for a less encumbered view. Rightfully so, Mary vetoed my thoughts. This was after we had walked to the very end of the boardwalk without seeing another one. We returned to the purple “smudge” where I sat to contemplate my next move as Mary walked on. People kept passing by as I sat attempting to find a better focus through the grasses. I just finally gave up and started back up the boardwalk.

What happened next is what many mushroomers know … that you can be looking right at a morel, say, and until you actually see one you see none at all. Yet, when you find the first all the others come into view. All around you. Which happened not three meters distant. And what is really odd is that I was photographing a blooming Pitcher Plant located between both when coming from the other direction … without seeing either the one facing me or the other in profile. Both were in full sunlight with light glaring off the dorsal sepals, and much closer than the one tucked into the grasses further down the trail.

As I sat, kneeled and finally laid onto the boardwalk for different angles, a few passersby asked what I was photographing. Only one caught the significance and she stood tall with a cell phone. Some, “Oh, cool’s” and “Really’s” were said, though most were there for a joy ride. None shared either my relief or excitement. That was all mine. It was my obsession and one I couldn’t share.

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As I sat, kneeled and finally laid on the boardwalk for different angles, none shared either my relief or excitement. This was all mine. It was my obsession and one I couldn’t share.

There was just enough breeze to sometimes shade the two plants, or to barely cover some negative background “noise,” so patience was as necessary as was the sharing of the moment. I thought of just the night before, and several hours of highway time distant, when we were with a group of friends at an outdoor concert by my musician friend, Lee Kanten, when we told of where we were headed and why. I justified the journey in search of this tiny, rare and obscure orchid by comparing it to that of a hunter driving to Meeker, Colorado, to hunt elk. “The hunter might not see an elk, and he might miss even if he has a shot. Same thing,” I had said.

“But,” asked someone, “all that way just for a flower?” Maybe it made no sense. Obsessions are just that way!

Several moments and photo images later I headed up the gravely path to join Mary. She said she saw my smile beaming from under my sweaty old hat several meters away. She assured me it was a smile of contentment and without an ounce of smugness. Imagine that!

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There is such a small window for the bloom, and for once I was there when the window was open.

Later, when we were back on the highway, I thought of a different kind of hunter … those who travel to Africa for safari hunts. No, I’m not a hunter, so I imagined that when you’ve shot and killed a lion, then what? What happens next? Is there a new obsession?

Dragon Mouth’s are rather rare and emerge after many years to bloom in an ecosystem that is severely threatened by global warming. It’s a precious if somewhat unknown flower, an orchid, no less. There is such a small window for the bloom, and for once I was there when the window was open. Perhaps that is all one can ever hope for. Satisfied, I shall now return to being “opportunist” and leaving the “hunting” and hopefully the obsessions for others.

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About John G. White

Somewhat retired after a long award-winning career in newspapers (Wisconsin State Journal, Dubuque Telegraph-Herald, Denver Post and a country weekly, the Clara City Herald). Free lance photographer and writer with credits in more than 70 magazines. Editor with various Webb Publishing magazines in St. Paul, and a five year stint as editorial director at Miller Meester Advertising.

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