Portraits of Wildflowers

Perspectives on Nature Photography

A scarcity of ladies’ tresses

with 18 comments


On November 17th I hunted for Great Plains ladies’ tresses orchids (Spiranthes magnicamporum) on a property in northwest Austin where I count on finding that species each fall. After 20 minutes of looking in likely spots and not finding any of those flowers, I sat down to photograph an ironweed; when I next looked up, I noticed a single orchid a few feet away. The inflorescence wasn’t very long and its lower flowers were already beginning to turn brown, but at least I found one. This year’s drought may be responsible for the fact that the orchid had no kin accompanying it.


(Pictures from our time in New Mexico will resume in the next post.)




“Before enlightenment: chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment: chop wood, carry water.”
— a Zen Buddhist saying.


© 2022 Steven Schwartzman






Written by Steve Schwartzman

December 9, 2022 at 4:25 AM

18 Responses

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  1. A beautiful orchid, we should all learn to look much closer as most people don’t even recognise a plant like this one as an orchid. I love wild orchids and I always try to find them here around Antwerp.


    December 9, 2022 at 7:14 AM

    • Somehow I don’t think about wild orchids around Antwerp, just as you don’t think about wild orchids around Austin.

      Steve Schwartzman

      December 9, 2022 at 7:27 AM

  2. Are the petals rimmed with ice? A nice effect. Sorry it’s let its hair down but still unaccompanied.

    Robert Parker

    December 9, 2022 at 8:15 AM

    • It’s understandable that you could think you’re seeing the petals rimmed with delicate ice, but that frosted look is inherent. Even now, three weeks later and a week into December, I’ve yet to see frost on any plant this season. Your last sentence brought to mind once again the famous line by Milton: “They also serve who only stand and wait.”

      Steve Schwartzman

      December 9, 2022 at 8:22 AM

  3. The progression from the prime state at the top to the first signs of decay is clearly visible in this picture.

    Peter Klopp

    December 9, 2022 at 9:52 AM

  4. Love that you’ve caught the delicate edge detail – not an easy thing to do with white!

    Ann Mackay

    December 9, 2022 at 12:51 PM

  5. Grreat capture, and yes, the drought seems to have affected the abundance of many plants this year. Hopefully the rains of October and November will help, but who can predict whether the weather in the months to come will favor the local native plants? The Ladies Tresses photo brought back memories of a Native Plant Society of Texas symposium held in Texarkana, where I accidentally noticed a flower new to me in the middle of the dirt road the field trippers had just passed along, and soon had identified it as a Ladies Tresses orchid. As often is the case, once you find one of a species, you’ll often find another, and another, which happened to be the case in this case.

    Your photo is much finer than any of the ones I took that day, but I do appreciate the virtual trip down memory lane.


    December 9, 2022 at 2:38 PM

    • Glad you like the portrait, which for quite a while that morning I didn’t think would be coming my way. And I’m glad to have rekindled your ladies’ tresses memories from Texarkana. I know what you mean about a first find triggering more of the same; sometimes that’s happened to me, but not with ladies’ tresses this year, when my first was also my last for the season.

      Steve Schwartzman

      December 9, 2022 at 3:13 PM

      • “Before enlightenment: chop wood, carry water. After enlightenment: chop wood, carry water.”
        or, as a bluegrass musician once remarked, “Some days you eat the bear, and some days the bear eats you.”


        December 9, 2022 at 4:01 PM

  6. One is better than none, especially when it comes to a delight like this orchid. I rather like the delicate colors of the fading flowers next to the still pristine blooms, as well as the translucent edges.

    I wouldn’t be surprised if drought affected their development. We certainly have had plenty of stunted or absent flowers in this area, as well as things like yaupons that flowered but never put on berries. One of my favorite drought monitor maps is this one. It’s useful to be able to get a historical view, since conditions a month or two ago probably affected the development of some plants.


    December 9, 2022 at 6:24 PM

    • Yes, one is definitely better than none. Arithmetically speaking, 1 is infinitely many times as large as 0. In previous years I never had to resort to showing a ladies’ tresses orchid that was beginning to turn brown. Actually I could have zoomed in on just the fresh flowers at the top but, as you said, the contrast between fading and fresh flowers also has some value.

      Your drought map shows that much of the hill country is still in exceptional drought, the most severe category. My part of Austin lies three bands outside that, with “only” moderate drought. Although Lost Maples seems to be in the ring for extreme drought, that didn’t keep this from being an excellent autumn there.

      Steve Schwartzman

      December 9, 2022 at 6:34 PM

  7. Lovely image. I found a Spiranthes species in September last year, but failed to find it this fall.


    December 9, 2022 at 11:32 PM

    • For years I was familiar with ladies’ tresses orchids from a local wildflower guide but never found one. Since the time when I finally came across my first, only a couple of autumns have passed when I didn’t find at least one.

      Steve Schwartzman

      December 10, 2022 at 6:03 AM

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