By KAREN HOPPER USHER
Capital News Service
LANSING — The tiny white-and-pink flowers made Mark Carlson’s heart pound. His 30-year quest to find and photograph the small round-leaved orchis (Amerorchis rotundifolia) was finally over.
But he couldn’t believe how tough it was going to be to get the picture just right.
Carlson, a 58-year-old professional nature photographer who lives in Laingsburg in central Michigan, is on a mission to photograph the state’s best orchids. Common or plain orchids and ugly backgrounds don’t interest him.
“I don’t make a picture if the background doesn’t present itself,” he said.
Still, he estimates he’s photographed at least 50 of Michigan’s native orchid species. That’s only seven less than the state hosts, making it the most orchid-rich state after Florida and New York, according to Anton Reznicek, the assistant director of the University of Michigan herbarium.
Carlson’s quest has taken him all over the state. On the day 10 years ago in northern Michigan’s Schoolcraft County when he finally found the small round-leaved orchis, thick foliage gave him pause.
“I want to make a pretty picture, but oh, it’s a bad situation,” Carlson recalled.
The small round-leaved orchis were deep into the shrubs and the fen, a marshy terrain.
“You gotta get wet,” he said.
After “teasing” away twigs and branches (he says he never pulls anything out), Carlson took a picture he liked.
Then he did something he says he’ll never do again.
He told people where to find the flowers.
Now they’re gone from that location.
“They got basically trampled to death,” he said.
Carlson blames other nature photographers.
Just one photographer probably won’t hurt orchids, said Scott Namestnik, a botanist with Orbis Environmental Consulting in South Bend, Indiana. But several photographers visiting the same site over and over again can trample the flowers.
Poachers are a bigger threat, Namestnik said. And so is climate change.
“Orchids are canaries in the coal mine,” said Ron McHatton, the science and education officer at the American Orchid Society in Florida.
Orchids are accustomed to narrow climates and temperatures. When temperatures heat up too fast in the spring or don’t get cold enough in winter, “It’s an open question as to what will happen,” he said.
Michigan has so many orchid species because it has so many kinds of terrain and microclimates caused by the Great Lakes, said Doug Pearsall, senior scientist at The Nature Conservancy in Michigan.
No succinct definition of an orchid exists, McHatton said. A common definition is that orchids are “perfect” flowers with male and female reproductive elements fused into a so-called column. Sometimes the column is only partially fused.
Other clues are a fine, dust-like seed, six floral segments, and monocot seedlings (seeds with just one embryonic leaf).
The rarest orchid in Michigan is probably the Eastern prairie fringed orchid, Namestnik said. The threatened flower is found in bogs, fens and prairies but is becoming rarer due to habitat damage.
And Carlson has found it.
“Over the years, I’ve personally witnessed the decline of this one-time common orchid,” Carlson wrote on Facebook.
Carlson is drawn to orchids because of their sensitivity to their environment.
“The rarity, the scarcity, the exotic, intricate detail and shape,” he said.
When his mentor, the late Larry West of Mason, introduced him to orchids around 1980, Carlson said he was hooked right away.
West took Carlson to a bog, which was like walking on a waterbed through dense brush, he said.
When they came across pink lady slippers, it was the most exciting thing Carlson’d ever seen.
“Mother nature is protecting these treasures,” he said about the slog through the bog and the brush. “And that’s part of the fascination.”
Carlson has two more orchid species to photograph on his quest to photograph Michigan’s rarest and most beautiful native orchids. He’ll forego flowers that are very similar to other orchids he’s already found. Rattlesnake orchids, he says, are all pretty similar.
“I’m after the showy ones,” he said.
When he’s done, he wants to publish a book.
The nodding pogonia and the whorled pogonia are his white whales.
The nodding pogonia is extremely rare and is found in mixed hardwood forests, Pearsall said.
The whorled pogonia is found in “older hardwood stands . . . often on slopes near small streams,” according to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
That’s more information than Carlson himself will share when he completes his task. After his experience with the small round-leaved orchis, he limits the information he gives out. He’ll say which county he was in when he photographed the orchids, but doesn’t want to share information about habitat.
“When I find these last two remaining orchids, I’m not going to say anything,” he said, “I’m just going to show them.”
Find Carlson on the web: markscarlson.com
Karen Hopper Usher is a reporter for Great Lakes Echo.