North America’s once wild Tallgrass prairie hosts an especially beautiful orchid known as the Oklahoma grass pink (Calopogon oklahomensis). The pale pink flowers are unusual among orchids because the buds do not resupinate, or rotate 180 degrees, before the flowers bloom. As a result the lip, which sports yellow ball-tipped hairs, points upward. This “fake pollen” plays a role in the ruse the species uses to fool bees into pollinating it. When lusty bees try to land on the lip they, and it, fall onto the column so that the pollen wads known as pollinia will (hopefully) stick to the bee. For this complicated deceit to work the bee has to fall for it again, depositing pollen onto the stigma, which is hidden in the fake pollen, of another flower in the process. Whew.
Botanists recognize five species in the genus Calopogon–all of them in eastern North America. The Oklahoma grass pink, which is no more than a foot tall, is (or was), found from eastern Texas and Oklahoma northward (sparingly) through the Midwest to the Great Lakes and formerly (probably very rarely) locally in the southeast.
It is, without question, my favorite prairie orchid. The blooms are exciting and exquisite floral decorations in the few dew-covered April prairies where they continue to bloom in defiance of modernity’s attempt the wipe them out.
This past April I made an unplanned stop on a seldom-traveled highway right of way in a forgotten corner of Texas and there, along the fence, in a narrow sliver of unplowed sod, I spotted the tiny pink gem ablaze in the April grass.
For over an hour I photographed it from every angle. But mostly I just sat there shocked to be looking at such a rare Texas orchid in a county where it had never been recorded. I looked for companions but I didn’t see any. Not a single car drove by to break the spell. I was alone in the April breeze with a lone orchid whose presence speaks to me of Prairie Time.