Last summer, in the month of August, I discovered the diminutive Three Birds Orchid on a mulched path in my neighbor’s garden. I went straight home to look it up in my field guide, since I never encountered it before.
The common name, Three Birds Orchid, is intriguing. Apparently the orchid often bears three pale flowers on one stem and they vaguely resemble little birds in flight.
Rising only three to eight inches in height, Three Birds Orchid has succulent, purplish-green stems and small, alternate, ovate leaves that clasp the stems.
The flowers arise from the upper leaf axils and are pink to white. Each flower (only about 1/2 inch wide) bears 3 white sepals that spread open, exposing a hood composed of 2 white petals covering a three-lobed lip petal (or labellum). If you get down on your knees, you might be able to see three green (or yellow) ridges in the “throat” of the flower, and a purplish pollen sac hanging above.
From my reading, I’ve learned that tiny bees visit the flowers and are drawn inside. The pollen sac breaks off, attaches to the bee’s back, and is thereby carried away to another flower. The chances of successful cross-pollination are enhanced because most of the flowers in a given colony will open in synchrony.
This year, I was anxious to watch all this unfold again in my neighbor’s yard. I noticed the little orchids coming up after a recent rain, so I started to visit them every day until the flowers formed. It took over a week for the buds to form and then mature. Finally, I went over one morning about 9 am and the buds were still closed…. I stopped again about 11 am and noticed the sepals were starting to spread. I sat down and watched, and within an hour, all of the flowers opened in unison! Sure enough, tiny bees began to show up, shopping each flower carefully. Below you can see a photo of one of the bees carrying a pollen sac on its back. Amazing!
Fruit capsules will form soon after flowering. They are dark green at first and elliptical in shape. Later in the fall, they dry to a brownish color and release their seeds.
Three Birds is a short-lived ephemeral wildflower that blooms in August and September, depending on weather conditions, aspect, elevation, etc. Individual flowers only last for a day or so, so catching them in bloom is a matter of luck. Look for this tiny orchid in moist, hardwood forests (especially American beech forests) and in decaying humus/organic matter (which is where I was lucky enough to find it!)