Where better to spend a Saturday morning than crouching in a forest, braving through mosquitos and ants, and finding a rare, myco-heterotrophic orchid with no chlorophyll? After taking the public bus past downtown towards St. Edward's University in Austin's South Congress neighborhoods, I passed fancy boutiques, restaurants, and bars. Soon, I was in a more residential area as I approached the university, and spotted the small stretch of woods that lined the edge of campus. Hearing the drone of crickets under the steadily warming sun, I began my hunt, crossing the grassy field before the forest.
Soon, I came across some of the more famous Texan wildflowers, as recognizable as Matthew McConaughey to any Texan. From left to right, Oenothera speciosa (Pinkladies), Gaillardia pulchella (Indian Blanket), and Lupinus texensis (Texas Bluebonnet). All of these wildflowers can be seen on any Texas roadside, and bring a bit of color to the rows and rows of concrete lanes.
Below are some more interesting plants. On the left are Convolvulus equitans, a morning glory species that gracefully climbs along other plants. It's common name is Texas Bindweed, which is misleading because it's neither a noxious climber nor will anything particularly interesting happen when you try to smoke it. On the right is Diaperia prolifera, a silvery herb covered in a dense layer of pubescence found in open, dry area.
Eventually, I began approaching the forest. The types of plants began changing as well, with small shrubs and other shade loving species becoming more prevalent. The mosquitoes also increased their assault, and I found myself swatting myself frequently.
Some of the more interesting plants that I found in this more canopied area included Mimosa nuttallii (left), a plant that closes it's leaves when touched, and a relative of the closely related and more famous M. pudica. Pictured in the middle is a species of Symphyotrichum, but since I suck at identifying asters and half of them look the same, I can only narrow it down to genus. On the right is Schoenocaulon texanum , a bulbous, grass-like perrennial found in shrubby woodlands and rocky fields.
The ground soon changed from grass to a thick layer of dead leaves as I entered the forest. I knew the orchids would be difficult to spot, with their drab, brown color rendering them virtually invisible against the litter.
However, soon I stumbled across a small patch of thin, alien like stalks reminiscent of asparagus rising from the ground. I knew I had found what I was looking for, the immature flower stalks of the rare crested coralroot orchid, or Bletia (Hexalectris) spicata. Several stalks were emerging from the ground in varying stages of maturity, but none were open.
It seemed like finding the first population had trained my eyes to home in on more. Soon, I began spotting numerous other clumps, even coming across a singular stalk that did begin flowering. The plants themselves have no leaves or chlorophyll, instead rising from underground coral-shaped structures, hence their common name coralroots (not to be confused with another native Orchid, Corallorhiza). Instead of photosynthesizing to produce sugar like normal plants, these orchids take nutrients from fungi in the ground, effectively parasitizing them. Often found near trees, it's believed the specific fungi are mycorrhizae associated with oaks. However odd they may be, the flowers are characteristic of any orchid, with three sepals, three petals, with one of the petals being exaggerated and forming the "lip". A closer look reveals they're actually quite beautiful, with the ruffled purple lip contrasting with the drab, brown stripes of the petals and sepals.
What was most exciting (and one of the main reasons I had chosen this site) was an odd, yellow flowered form of the species that seemed to lack anthocyanin, or plant pigment. The entire plant was a bright, buttercup yellow, while the lip was a bright white color that was devoid of any of the striking purple veins. The most I could find online about this form was the name H. spicata forma lutea, but I'm not sure about the validity of this taxon.
There were two populations of this odd yellow form, and unfortunately one of them was destroyed by what I'm guessing was a foraging animal. The second clump that was untouched did not have any open flowers, and I will definitely be returning in a few weeks to photograph the ghostly flowers.
Most people aren't aware of such an botanically rich area nestled in the heart of Austin, and even less are aware that a beautiful, parasitic, and enigmatic orchid lives beneath their feet. Keep Austin weird y'all.