Nodding Ladies’ Tresses

Spiranthes cernua
Other Common Name
Common Ladies’ Tresses; Ladies’ Tresses Orchid
Family

Orchidaceae (orchids)

Description

Nodding ladies’ tresses, in bloom, is a slender green stalk with small white orchid flowers arranged in a spiral. Flowers are white with a pointed lip, arranged in a spiral around the stem, about 1/4 to 3/8 inch long, and each points slightly downward. Flowers usually have a "lily of the valley" fragrance. Blooms August–November. Stem leaves are few, very narrow, clasping the flowering stem. The basal leaves have usually disappeared before the flowers appear.

There are six other Spiranthes species found in Missouri; one, shining ladies' tresses (S. lucida), flowers in May–June and is restricted to fens and seeps in the Ozark and Ozark Border regions; the other five bloom in late summer and fall.

Size

Height: to 18 inches.

Habitat and conservation

Occurs in dry acid glades, upland dry prairies, old fields, thickets, wet meadows, and open stream valleys.

image of Common Ladies’ Tresses Nodding Ladies’ Tresses distribution map
Distribution in Missouri

Scattered nearly statewide, but most common south of the Missouri River.

Status

In Missouri, this is one of the most common orchids in the genus Spiranthes. The orchids are one of the largest families of flowering plants, but most live in the tropics. Missouri has about 36 orchid species; globally, there are about 15,000. Many of Missouri's orchids occur in small populations and are declining due to habitat changes (soil moisture, light levels, density of surrounding plants, and so on). They do not transplant well, so take photographs instead!

Human connections

The common name of "ladies' tresses" apparently arose because the spiral arrangement of the flowers resembles long, braided hair. One of the reasons many common names of plants have endured for so long is their poetic or colorful way of describing some aspect of the plant; they are easy to remember!

Ecosystem connections

Orchids are famous for their outrageous diversity in flower shapes. Their weird flower parts — lips, columns, saclike pollen masses, sticky pads, and more — are adaptions to enable pollination by various insects. The spiral pattern of ladies' tresses is thought to encourage pollination by bees.