Field of Science

Illegal alien orchids?

Somehow I always think of orchids as rather rare, rather delicate organisms. Many of the terrestrial orchids of North America are rather small so it always comes as a pleasant surprise to unexpectedly notice one. The plant in question is Epipactis helleborine, commonly called just helleborine, which means little hellebore, and this doesn't make any sense because hellebores are buttercups not orchids, but that's common names for you. This one was growing, protected from picking and disturbance by the surrounding Wisconsin state park on the shore of Lake Michigan, but no matter how cute, this is an invasive plant, an alien species brought to North America and turned loose. From its introduction decades ago it has spread across northeastern United States and adjacent Canada.

I don't know if the presence of helleborine orchids does any harm. They are charming to see flowering in the forest understory, which is usually pretty dull and devoid of flowers in the summer. Most forest plants flower in the spring.

But helleborine is an invasive alien plant. Hard to know whether to pull it or praise it, but yanking up orchids is such an ingrained botanical no-no that even knowing this orchid is an alien I find myself troubled at the thought of pulling them up even though it is no different than a ragweed or bull thistle.

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