Society publishes Manitoba orchid guide

by Doris Penner

The number of amateur naturalists is increasing across the prairies.  For some it is an excuse to trek out in the wilds among the flora and fauna, while others develop an intense interest in the various plant species.  Inevitably, some plant enthusiasts will be captivated by a certain plant and become interested in pursuing it, trying to locate it in its natural habitat and collecting information about its habitat requirements, its interdependence on other species, how rare it is and whether it is in danger of becoming extinct. 

Certainly the orchid is a flower that has a mystique about it that keeps on drawing both amateur and professional naturalists.  What some people may not know is that 36 wild orchid species grow in Manitoba and while hundreds of naturalists in the province are enjoying them, they also make Manitoba a destination for thousands of orchid hobbyists from other parts of the world.  For example, the province has the largest and most impressive population of the western prairie fringed-orchid left in the world. 

The prairie fringed-orchid is an example of a flower that almost became extinct—this points out the important of the protection of wild habitats where native plant species can thrive.  In 1998, Native Orchid Conservation Inc was formed to protect unique mini-ecosystems and their plant communities.  This involves mainly native orchids but also extends to other plant species found in these communities. 

"When we were in the field doing botanical surveys or conducting field trips we often wished for a book on Manitoba's orchid species," said Doris Ames who has been with NOCI since its inception.  "After much encouragement, we finally decided to write one ourselves." 

The result is Orchids of Manitoba, a beautifully crafted 158-page field guide put together by members of the orchid organization, spearheaded by Ames.  Being the first comprehensive work on the province's orchids, it will go far beyond providing enjoyment for hobbyists—it will also stimulate interest in the environment and assist biologists in their research.  In a simple but attractive layout, the description of each the 36 orchid species is accompanied by a 4 by 2-inch coloured photograph.  Included is such information as the habitat, abundance, identification aids and comments as well as a distribution map for each orchid species which is helpful in searching out the plants. 

The photographs are exceptional in quality—some showing flowers in various stages and some depicting insects pollinating the blossoms.  Ames notes they had thousands of photographs to choose from since most members of NOCI are keen photographers.  She noted they took a trip to Churchill recently to observe and photograph orchids that grown in the tundra. 

The guide begins with a brief history of orchids that naturalists will find informative and interesting.  Apparently orchids were first recorded for Manitoba in 1839 by a famous English botanist, Sir William Jackson Hooker, the first curator of Kew Gardens in England where he began to organize the vast orchid collection for which the gardens are famous.  By 1909, 19 orchid species were listed among the flora of Manitoba. 

While today the number stands at 36, it is possible other species or varieties may still be discovered since much of the northern part of the province remains unexplored (speaking in botanical terms). 

In addition to orchid history, the book speaks about conservation and biodiversity and the protection of species and ecosystems before it turns specifically to orchid biology and habitat. 

Two other aids naturalists will find useful are a chart showing the flowering times for each of Manitoba orchids as well as a fairly comprehensive glossary to help understand terms when reading about orchids. 

While one of the purposes for writing the book was to provide a reference book for people to find and recognize orchids in the field, another purpose—equally important—is to raise awareness of Manitoba's native orchid species and the need for their conservation. 

Orchids of Manitoba is available at major bookstores in Winnipeg and will also be carried by Mennonite Heritage Village Library Café. 

© 2005 The Carillon.  First appeared in the 2005-Dec15 issue of The Carillon.