Portraits of Wildflowers

Perspectives on Nature Photography

Ladies’ tresses

with 29 comments

There are only a few kinds of native orchids in central Texas, and if a person here encounters one at all, it’s likely to be Great Plains ladies’ tresses*, Spiranthes magnicamporum, which blooms in the fall. On October 29th I came home to a phone message from native plant enthusiast Meg Inglis, who alerted me to the appearance of some of those orchids on a street in her neighborhood. That area is at least 20 miles from where I live, but several years ago I found a fair number of ladies’ tresses on an undeveloped property in my part of town, so I took Meg’s message as a call to action to check out my local spot and see if any had also appeared close to home. They had indeed, and now you get to see one, another first for this blog. All told, I discovered only half a dozen ladies’ tresses; that number compares unfavorably to the couple of dozen I found on the property in 2009 and 2010, but favorably to the zero that came up in the drought year of 2011. Here’s to a happy recovery.

To see the many places in North America where this orchid grows, you can consult the state-clickable map at the USDA website.


* Some sources use the singular, lady’s tresses, but I’ll be magnanimous with the magnicamporum and attribute these tresses to more than one lady.

© 2012 Steven Schwartzman

Written by Steve Schwartzman

November 2, 2012 at 6:15 AM

29 Responses

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  1. Love the contrast of white on black – simply gorgeous!!


    November 2, 2012 at 6:32 AM

    • Thanks, Cindy. It took me years before I finally found one of these—and it was exactly one—but now I look forward to seeing them each fall, provided Texas doesn’t have a severe drought.

      Steve Schwartzman

      November 2, 2012 at 6:39 AM

  2. That’s the fun of finding orchids, you only ever find a few. I once found a lovely pink Venus’ Slipper – and only one – and I’ve never found it, or another of its species again even though I’ve searched everywhere including where I originally found it. Of course the pictures I got that day are lousy – not like this perfect image in perfectly sweet light.

    Cindy Kilpatrick

    November 2, 2012 at 8:49 AM

    • Botanist Bill Carr told me that at a certain location in south Austin in past years there were lots of these ladies’ tresses, but when I went there a couple of years ago I found only a few. In any case, I’m glad you got to see your one and only Venus’ slipper.

      Steve Schwartzman

      November 2, 2012 at 9:13 AM

  3. Wunderschönes Foto, ich mag weiße Blüten sehr gerne.

    LG Mathilda 🙂


    November 2, 2012 at 8:55 AM

    • Mathilda says that she’s especially fond of white flowers, so it’s clear why this picture would appeal to her.

      Steve Schwartzman

      November 2, 2012 at 9:14 AM

  4. First time for me to see this beautiful plant. Great info again. Is this an endangered plant? Are any being grown at Lady Bird Johnson wildflower center?


    November 2, 2012 at 10:24 AM

    • No, this isn’t an endangered species. You can check with the friendly folks at the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center to see if they have any there.

      Steve Schwartzman

      November 2, 2012 at 10:32 AM

  5. So very lovely! I thought it looked a great deal like gladiolus so I looked them both up to compare. They were the same right up to the subclass of liliidae, and then switched at the order. Those common roots on their family tree make them seem very alike. My biggest surprise was their size. They are very tiny!
    Steve, your lighting appears to come from the right, and your background is totally black. How did you accomplish the dark background with all that light? ~Lynda


    November 2, 2012 at 11:07 AM

    • I like the delving you did into the family trees of the two species.

      Yes, each flower of this kind of orchid is small, but there are plenty of flowers on a spike.

      In taking this photograph, I exposed for the bright white of the orchid while also aiming toward the darkest area I could find in the background. Even so, some distracting bits of gray still appeared in the otherwise dark background of the resulting image. I darkened those in Photoshop so they wouldn’t distract from the ladies’ tresses. In most of the other pictures I’ve shown with black backgrounds, the things at a distance were shaded enough compared to my bright subject that the camera saw them as black without my having to do any darkening afterwards. One example is the sneezeweed flower heads I showed in the first week of this blog. In real life, our eyes, which are so much more sensitive than camera sensors, see all sorts of things in the background very clearly. The challenge is to take advantage of the camera’s limitations as much as possible.

      Steve Schwartzman

      November 2, 2012 at 11:24 AM

  6. Loving the classics as I do, this is deeply appealing. Basic black, a string of pearls, and all that. I really am struck by your response to pixilated2. The thought of taking advantage of limitations turns our usual advice to one another on its head. It’s an interesting perspective, and worth pondering.


    November 3, 2012 at 9:02 AM

    • It is a different perspective (and we can both be forgiven—or praised—for playing with that word). We already have instruments that have gone way beyond the power of the eyes we’re born with: microscopes that can see amoebas and even molecules; telescopes that can look at distant galaxies using ultraviolet and infrared light, both of which are eyes are blind to. Eventually consumer cameras (most of which already see in the near infrared range) may have sensors that are as good as or even better than our eyes in all respects, but in the meantime a photographer has to take advantage of a camera’s shortcomings to create images that are as appealing as possible. While we’re on that subject, let me add that this concept is nothing new in the world of “art” photography, where there have been fads of using certain cheap cameras because of their imperfections. One example is the Holga. Now there are even iPhone camera apps that mimic the effects of those imperfect cameras.

      Steve Schwartzman

      November 3, 2012 at 9:50 AM

  7. This is very beautiful Steve! I love your technique for capturing this and the way you described it!

    Michael Glover

    November 15, 2012 at 9:24 PM

    • It’s a great wildflower, all right, and one that it took me years to finally see. I’m glad you find my explanation of the technique I used useful, Michael.

      Steve Schwartzman

      November 15, 2012 at 9:41 PM

  8. […] Here’s a native grass, Schizachyrium scoparium, that’s known as little bluestem. That color name aside, slender sections of this grass often turn red in the fall. This picture, which I sat on the ground and leaned over to take, is from the same October 29 session in northwest Austin that brought you the photograph of a ladies’ tresses orchid. […]

  9. Stunning!


    November 28, 2012 at 9:02 AM

    • Yes, they’re a joy to see in the fall—when I can find any. Last year, because of the drought, I couldn’t find a single one on this property.

      Steve Schwartzman

      November 28, 2012 at 9:07 AM

  10. […] the October 29th session that brought you a picture of a ladies’ tresses orchid, I stopped to photograph several developing seed heads of a native grass called hairy grama, […]

  11. […] When I got back from Arkansas on November 10th, I found a phone message from Meg Inglis saying that there were some groups of ladies’ tresses orchids, Spiranthes magnicamporum, flowering in her neighborhood. (Thanks, Meg, and people like you who tip me off to sightings of native plants.) So, after driving 1300 miles in four days, the next afternoon I set out on the 30-mile trek to see the ladies’ tresses a little south of the town of Bee Cave. The orchids were growing in a ditch along Westcave Loop and were mostly surrounded by drying grass, so I had to get low and mat down small areas of the grass in order to have a clear view of any of the orchids. As you can see, the buds on this one were still opening, and the direction of the opening is clear: from bottom to top. If you’d like to see what one of these spikes looks like when all its flowers have opened, you can check a post from last November. […]

  12. […] Rd. and Spicewood Springs Rd. on March 24th. (This is the same parcel where I’ve found ladies’ tresses orchids each November for the past few […]

  13. Beautiful. I wouldn’t mind tresses like that. Reminds me of the beautiful flower garlands of India http://news.bbcimg.co.uk/media/images/56720000/jpg/_56720720_jasmin.jpg


    April 30, 2014 at 6:43 AM

    • Yes, I can see the similarity. I doubt that any ladies here in Austin have put ladies’ tresses orchids in their hair, but who knows?

      Steve Schwartzman

      April 30, 2014 at 7:03 AM

      • May explain why you haven’t seen so many in the fields in recent times. 😀


        May 1, 2014 at 4:13 AM

  14. […] If you’d like a closer look at one of these orchids in isolation, you’re invited to check out a post from the fall of 2012. […]

  15. These are lovely! Do you know are they fragrant at all? This image does answer some of my questions for your more recent post about this plant. It seems to make sense that you wouldn’t find any during a drought given that most orchids like their moisture. I hope you continue to find them!!

    Thanks for sharing. 🙂


    November 14, 2014 at 8:10 PM

    • You’re welcome, and who wouldn’t be happy to share one of these?

      I’ve not detected any scent from this specirs, but different noses can be sensitive (or not) to different aromas. If I go back while the orchids are still there, I’ll check to see if I detect any scent.

      Steve Schwartzman

      November 14, 2014 at 9:55 PM

  16. I have this growing wild in my yard RIGHT NOW, May 7th…springtime! A single appeared last year and now there are two that are side by side. They are precious!

    Jenny Ross

    May 7, 2017 at 1:09 PM

    • I’m guessing you have Spiranthes vernalis, whose species name means ‘springtime.’ If you really do have Spiranthes magnicamporum or the similar Spiranthes cernua, then it’s a prodigy that’s half a year out of sync.

      Steve Schwartzman

      May 7, 2017 at 3:24 PM

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