I discovered Three Birds Orchid on a mulched path in my neighbor’s garden this week. I looked down, cocked my head, and said, “Holy Cow, I think that’s a wild orchid! ”
You gotta love the name of this one—Three Birds. Who wouldn’t be intrigued by a name like that? It comes from the fact that the flowering stems (racemes) often bear three pale flowers that resemble 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. Although they have the familiar orchid morphology, complete with a three-lobed lip (labellum), these nodding flowers are so small (1/2 in), that most of the features cannot be seen readily. If you can view it with a hand lens, you might also spot three green ridges in the middle of the lower lip. The relatively large fruit capsules (seen in many of the photos below) are dark green and elliptical in shape.
Three Birds is a short-lived ephemeral that blooms in August and September. Individual flowers only last for a day or so. The two small colonies photographed below were blooming in Blacksburg in late August and early September.
Look for this tiny orchid in moist, hardwood forests (especially American beech forests) and in decaying humus/organic matter.
In the gallery below, I included one photo from Wikimedia Commons and two Forest Service images of Three Birds Orchid by Eleanor Saulys. Unfortunately, when I came across this plant, none of the flowers were fully open, so I was happy to find these other photos in the public domain.