Portraits of Wildflowers

Perspectives on Nature Photography

Time for ladies’ tresses orchids

with 29 comments

Great Plains Ladies' Tresses Orchid Buds Opening 9379A

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.

If you’re interested in photography as a craft, you’ll find that points 1, 2, and 6 in About My Techniques are relevant to this photograph.

© 2013 Steven Schwartzman

Written by Steve Schwartzman

December 6, 2013 at 5:57 AM

29 Responses

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  1. One of my favorites, although the only one I’ve seen around here is the Nodding Ladies’ Tresses which presents more of a spiral. Long gone as we enjoy them in September. Nicely crafted, Steve.

    Steve Gingold

    December 6, 2013 at 6:32 AM

    • The nodding ladies’ tresses orchid, Spiranthes cernua, is quite similar to this, and in fact when I first came across one of these about five years ago, I thought that’s what it was, but Bill Carr, a botanist well known here in native plant circles, told me that actually the ones in Austin are Spiranthes magnicamporum. I take his word for it, but I still don’t know how to tell the species apart. In any case, thanks for appreciating the craft.

      Steve Schwartzman

      December 6, 2013 at 7:59 AM

  2. Oh boy … I really like this one Steve. Something very clean, simple, geometric. Beautiful. D

    Pairodox Farm

    December 6, 2013 at 7:12 AM

    • Thanks, D. Clean and simple: that often does the trick in my book of magic, and geometry adds to the mix. As November approaches each year I look forward to these orchids and hope that nature cooperates.

      Steve Schwartzman

      December 6, 2013 at 8:08 AM

  3. Is the stalk square-ish? The photo gives the appearance of blooms heading off in three directions, leading me to imagine another series of blooms on the far side. Ladies’ tresses is a good name. I was confused at first, as I was thinking of tresses as loose and flowing hair, but then I took another look and saw the buds truly resemble beautifully-plaited hair.


    December 6, 2013 at 10:54 AM

    • This is a species I rarely see, and I’m not so familiar with its features, but I don’t think the stem is squarish. In fact the first part of the genus name Spiranthes comes from the usually spiraling inflorescence, though the one in this picture has only a slight twist to it.

      You’re right that the people who named these orchids ladies’ tresses were thinking of long, plaited hair, which I have the impression used to be a lot more common than it is now.

      Steve Schwartzman

      December 6, 2013 at 3:30 PM

  4. Strange yet so beautiful. Orchids are amazing.


    December 6, 2013 at 10:58 AM

    • The orchid family is very large, and Spiranthes looks almost nothing like many other kinds of orchids I’ve seen pictures of.

      Steve Schwartzman

      December 6, 2013 at 3:31 PM

  5. Such a beautiful portrait!

    Brenda Jones

    December 6, 2013 at 11:12 AM

  6. Very interesting. I like the progression of bloom as you go up.

    Jim in IA

    December 6, 2013 at 12:05 PM

    • I’ve learned that with plants that produce spikes of flowers, some species open from the bottom up, while other species open from the top down.

      Steve Schwartzman

      December 6, 2013 at 3:36 PM

  7. Steven This plant is absolutely fascinating – a new one for me. Thanks for all your photos. I’ve especially enjoyed the ones of fall color in Arkansas. Now this! What a treat to open every morning. Marilyn Moll

    Marilyn L. Moll

    December 6, 2013 at 12:57 PM

    • Happy fall color, Marilyn. Arkansas gave me an advantage I don’t normally have in Austin, but I’ve been finding a fair amount here this year, too, even if most of it is on a smaller scale than what people see farther north. Today I found and photographed a conspicuous colony of poison ivy—not a plant many people appreciate, but I do for its fall colors.

      I began photographing native plants in 1999, but only about five years ago did I finally start seeing this orchid. Now that I know a couple of places where it grows, I go back to them each fall.

      Steve Schwartzman

      December 6, 2013 at 3:44 PM

  8. This is amazing, how you captured the tiny flowers progressively blooming, and the great DOF.

    Maria F.

    December 7, 2013 at 12:16 AM

    • I looked up the EXIF data and found that I used an aperture of f/5.6, small enough to hold the top and bottom of the stalk in focus but large enough to render the other orchids and the dry grasses in the background pleasingly out of focus.

      It’s good to have been able to do something different from last year’s photo, where all the flowers were open at the same time. I don’t recall ever seeing such a range of openness in the specimens I’ve found.

      Steve Schwartzman

      December 7, 2013 at 7:38 AM

      • I have found f/ 5.6 works great with smaller flowers but it also depends how much foliage was behind it and how close it was, as well as how close the photographer was standing from the flower. It’s that DOF theory that has to do with how close things are from another. This is why I can’t give up using Canon. I can’t imagine getting this bokeh with a micro fourth thirds camera.

        Maria F.

        December 9, 2013 at 7:29 AM

        • I have no experience at all with cameras of the four-thirds format, but I imagine that if you used a macro lens on one of those cameras and inserted a small extension tube you might end up with the bokeh you want. Perhaps you could try that out in a camera store to see whether it works.

          Steve Schwartzman

          December 9, 2013 at 10:04 AM

  9. So amazing – the design in that stem and flower rivals any architectural structure of man.


    December 7, 2013 at 1:41 PM

  10. […] November 11th, when I first got out of my car on Westcave Loop south of Bee Cave, I found not a ladies’ tresses orchid but a wildflower that, like it, produces a single spike of white flowers. This wasn’t the […]

  11. Wonderful detail and DOF in this Steve


    December 9, 2013 at 9:58 AM

    • Thanks, Nora. An aperture of f/5.6 proved small enough to hold the top and bottom of the stalk in focus but large enough to keep the other orchids and the dry grasses in the background pleasingly out of focus.

      Steve Schwartzman

      December 9, 2013 at 10:05 AM

  12. […] I was on a mission to photograph ladies’ tresses orchids on Westcave Loop south of Bee Cave on November 11th, what first caused me to stop in that […]

  13. […] my way south to photograph ladies’ tresses orchids on November 11th, I drove past this scene on S. Capital of Texas Highway and found it so impressive […]

  14. I still haven’t gotten over what I found today at the Pond Creek Wildlife Refuge. It’s really back in the sticks, outside De Queen, Arkansas. There was no one there but me, and as I was roaming its gravel roads, I noticed something that seemed a purer white than usual. When I stopped and waded through the ditch — yessir, it was a ladies’ tresses orchid. By the time I left, I’d found a dozen more scattered about.

    From what I read, I believe they are the fragrant variety. I’m headed back tomorrow to see if I can find a stand of them, and get more photos. I can’t tell you what a thrill it was to find them. Who cares if it’s raining, when you can find a treasure like that?


    October 13, 2016 at 8:07 PM

    • That’s a welcome find. Let’s hope your return visit pans out. I’d been thinking about the local Austin species the other day, not knowing if I’ll see any this year because we’re driving out to California beginning on Sunday.

      Steve Schwartzman

      October 13, 2016 at 11:14 PM

      • Now, that’s a road trip! I presume we’ll see a little of the flora and perhaps even some fauna from along the way. Safe travels to you, too.


        October 15, 2016 at 5:08 AM

        • Thanks. For a change I expect to see a big share of grand landscapes, along with whatever flora there is to see this late in the year, especially farther north. Any animals that want to peer into my camera are welcome to do so.

          Steve Schwartzman

          October 15, 2016 at 5:47 AM

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