Thoreau x Orchids Crossover!
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Old 10-18-2023, 01:27 AM
neophyte neophyte is offline
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Thoreau x Orchids Crossover!
Default Thoreau x Orchids Crossover!

I had the most amazing thing happen to me over the weekend... it's a bit of a long story but please bear with me!

Now that it's mid-October, there are very few native orchids still visible in Massachusetts, but one of the few species left is a leafless parasitic species called the autumn coralroot (Corallorhiza odontorhiza). The species is usually always seen in fruit, as its flowers usually self-fertilize before they even open (and often, they never open at all—this phenomenon is termed cleistogamy).

The other day, I saw a record online for a related species, Corallorhiza maculata, in eastern Massachusetts, which was very interesting, as usually Corallorhiza does not occur this far east in the state. When I looked through the pictures, though, the cleistogamous flowers and greenish seed pods seemed to indicate that it was C. odontorhiza, which is much rarer in the state. I thought, great, I'll go check it out! Well, I did, and it turned out to be C. odontorhiza; pretty interesting but I thought that was the end of the story.

Apparently not! The original observer of this population who made the online record reached out to me, and it turns out that he was working with a Harvard professor who studies Thoreau—the 19th century Transcendentalist author I studied in American Literature! The professor has been going through Thoreau's old journals (besides being an author, Thoreau was quite the naturalist) and using the old place names and vague geologic features (think "south of __ swamp on an east-facing slope") to pinpoint exact modern locations for Thoreau's entries.

It turns out that Thoreau visited this (probably) same population in August of 1857 and mistook the plants for fruiting C. maculata. I'm so astonished that this group working on Thoreau managed to track down the population over 160 years later—it is really short of a miracle, considering these plants lack leaves and are 4-12 inches in height with flowers only a few millimeters across—from just a few feet away, they could just be a few dead twigs sticking out of the ground.

It's also a bit funny to think that more than a century later, I managed to bump into this story by accident and correct Thoreau himself! I'm trying to see if I can reach the professor now or at least a conservation botanist who can think of how to proceed.

Anyways, that's it for the rambling, and I don't want to sound corny, but this is almost like my personal connection to Thoreau now, and I'm just thrilled to have happened across this botany and history crossover! Just the fact that I might have maybe walked through the same woods that Thoreau once did and pondered over the same miniscule little orchids... I'm so amazed.

And some pictures:

They're pretty Halloween-appropriate—spooky little leafless parasites rising out of the ground, hardly noticeable until you're practically kneeling on the ground.

TL;DR: saw some native orchids that Thoreau himself may have once seen 160+ years ago!
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Old 10-18-2023, 08:59 AM
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Louis_W Louis_W is offline
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Thoreau x Orchids Crossover!

What a great story! Are they also trying to track down other landmarks in the journal? How odd to be a naturalist doing legwork for philosiphers! Were you using I naturalist? I love digging in to that app!

Also interesting to hear about because here in New Mexico Corallorhiza maculata is one of our common wild species. C. strata also!

Last edited by Louis_W; 10-18-2023 at 09:01 AM..
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Old 10-18-2023, 11:23 AM
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Roberta Roberta is online now
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What a wonderful story! I think you'll have a "field day" next spring! And best wishes for you at MIT.
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Old 10-18-2023, 01:38 PM
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DirtyCoconuts DirtyCoconuts is offline
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amazing!! i dont know which is more exciting, a really cool botanical sighting or a really cool literary/life crossover....take both!!!

so cool
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Old 10-19-2023, 12:27 AM
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My Green Pets My Green Pets is offline
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It's a goosebumpy story for sure, thank you for sharing it. You must've been thrilled when the pieces started coming together.
I love how since plants exist in a different temporal space than we do, they can meet different humans who are generations apart.
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Old 10-19-2023, 10:37 AM
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Leafmite Leafmite is offline
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How wonderful!
I decorate in green!
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ground, orchids, professor, species, thoreau

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