Nodding Ladies’ Tresses

Spiranthes cernua

Nodding Ladies’ tresses'(Spiranthes cernua)

Twist and shout!  Luckily the bright white of these tiny orchids help them to stand out in the grass and weeds, otherwise they would be easy to miss in September meadows.  They stand only 4 to 12 inches in height.

Nodding Ladies’ Tresses orchids bear their tiny flowers in a “double, intertwined” spiraling fashion along the stem. The entire inflorescence starts off as an elegant twist of buds, and then each tubular flower unfurls slowly from the bottom to the top. The lower lip of each flower is almost clear (crystalline). The flowers tend to angle downward, hence the name “nodding”.  And because the flowers “spiral” along the stem like the old-fashioned long curls of ladies long ago, they received the name “ladies tresses”.

The leaves are generally not visible at bloom time, but if they are, look for one or two small leaves at the base of the flower stalk. They will be grasslike, with smooth margins.

This species prefers to keep its feet wet. Look for it in bogs, wet woods, near seeps, and in disturbed places.

Just for comparison’s sake, check out the flowers of Slender Ladies Tresses (also known as Green-lipped Ladies Tresses) here–they are quite similar, but the flowers are borne in a single spiral, not double. A similar species, Yellow Ladies Tresses, is pictured at the bottom of this page.

Yellow Ladies Tresses
Spiranthes ochroleuca

A similar species, Yellow Ladies Tresses, occurs in dryer, open habitats. The lower lip of the flower (the labellum) has a wavy edge (crenelated) and is often marked with a yellow throat. The individual flowers are coated in tiny hairs that are difficult to see.

This group of plants were found growing in the fields at Masey Gap (on top of the bald at Grayson Highlands StatePark) in late August.


  1. Helen says:

    How interesting. We have these in Australia, but they grow in swamps and flower in summer. We have pink as well as white flowers.

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