Orchids are not on the average gardener’s list of fall color. But common ladies’ tresses (Spiranthes odorata), a terrestrial orchid native to wetlands in eastern North America, waits until September or October to burst into bloom. For most of the growing season, all you’ll see is a quiet, green rosette of leaves. But when fall comes around, tiny, white, hooded flowers open on spikes about 12 inches tall, releasing a delicious fragrance that some compare to vanilla. This small, elegant beauty is not persnickety, either—it doesn’t require a conservatory or daily fussing, but is quite happy in a dark, soggy corner of the average garden.
Common name: Common ladies’ tresses, nodding ladies’ tresses
Botanical name: Spiranthes odorata or Spiranthes cernua var. odorata
Plant type: Perennial
Zones: 4 to 8
Height: 1 to 2 feet
• Sun: Part shade
• Soil: Rich, boggy
• Moisture: Moist to wet
• Mulch: None needed
• Pruning: None needed
• Fertilizer: None needed
• By division of tubers
Pests and diseases
• When plants are grown inside, aphids and spider mites may be a problem.
• Spiranthes cernua var. odorata ‘Chadd’s Ford’ has fragrant flowers that are larger than the species.
• Common ladies’ tresses prefer a very moist site, such as a bog, marsh, or swamp.
• Good neighbors for common ladies’ tresses include cardinal flower, marsh marigold, ferns, pickerelweed, and primroses. These will supply color until common ladies’ tresses take the stage in autumn.
• Common ladies’ tresses will spread slowly by rhizome under the right conditions.
All in the family
• Common ladies’ tresses are in the orchid family (Orchidaceae), which, with around 25,000 species, is one of the largest families of flowering plants.
• Familiar plants that are also in Orchidaceae include vanilla and lady’s slipper.
Where to buy
• Arrowhead Alpines, Fowlerville, MI, 517-223-3581, www.arrowhead-alpines.com
• Orchids Limited, Plymouth, MN, 800-669-6006, www.orchidweb.com
• Plant Delights Nursery, Raleigh, NC, 919-772-4794, www.plantdelights.com
(Text by Elizabeth Noll, photo of Spiranthes odorata courtesy of Missouri Botanical Garden’s Kemper Center for Home Gardening)