Ladies’ Tresses

Ladies’ Tresses

Ladies’ Tresses

A close study of the coiling beauty

By Bill Warhop

Tread softly through the tall grass to discover the swirling white sprays of Spiranthes vernalis. You might spot Jekyll’s native orchid growing alongside ponds or in ditches where the
soil is damp.

There are twenty-seven species of Spiranthes—meaning “spiral”—in North America, many almost indistinguishable. Ecologists’ best guess is that Jekyll’s flower is the vernalis, or spring ladies’ tresses, blooming in late March and early April.

Each stem holds up to fifty flowers, each about the size of a pinky fingernail. Watch the ground for bumblebees and honeybees, its primary pollinators.

Of the 200-plus orchid species in North America, half are endangered or threatened. Georgia’s Spiranthes vernalis is “apparently secure,” in conservation-speak: uncommon but not rare, though some evidence indicates a decline.

Native Americans used ladies’ tresses in herbal remedies. Cherokees bathed their babes in a tea of Spiranthes leaves so they’d grow fast and healthy.

This article first appeared in Volume 2 Number 2 of 31•81, the Magazine of Jekyll Island.

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