Finding one of Maine’s 48 species of orchid in the wild “is like finding treasure on a treasure hunt,” said Mike Hicks of Bethel.
Hicks has been intrigued by the flowers since he saw his first pink lady’s slipper – a member of the orchid family - at around age 5. “It made a pretty big impression,” he said.
His interest in orchids got serious in 1980, when he read in a field guide that there were 20 species in Maine. He did some more reading, and then learned that there are in fact 48 species. There are five species of lady’s slippers: pink, ram’s head, showy, small yellow and large yellow.
A lifelong outdoorsman and hiker, Hicks began to combine his outings with a search for the different species. He also started photographing them and keeping a journal. He recorded measurements, the habitat in which each plant was growing, its scientific name and other information. So far, he has found 34 of the 48 species.
He has traveled near and far on such expeditions. He begins looking in late May of each season.
“Crystal Bog, near Patten, is a nice area,” hesaid. He described taking back roads and trails and eventually cutting through woods to get to a 1,000-acre open bog. His efforts paid off when he found orchids by the thousands and sighted eight different species.
He has also visited the Wells Preserve, the New England Wildflower Society in Wayne and closer to home, the trails of Sunday River Ski Resort.
Examples of orchids that are occasionally found in this area are the dragon’s mouth (pink with yellow fringe on one petal) and the rose pogonia (of similar color).
“There are places nearby, in bogs, where hundreds of [pogonias] can be found,” he said.
Among the rarest orchids in Maine are the prairie fringe (cream colored, and found in only one location) and the small whorled pogonia (green).
Lady’s slippers, though more common, need just the right conditions to grow, said Hicks. They can’t germinate in the wild unless they land on the right soil and are infected by a fungus. The seed then consumes the fungus and becomes parasitic underground. It can take up to six years for it to flower.
While it isn’t illegal to collect lady’s slippers in Maine, he said, it is highly discouraged because of the length of time needed to reach maturity.
Pollination for all orchids is a specialized process.
“Almost all are pollinated by a single organism specialized to the plant,” said Hicks. For example, for pink lady’s slippers, it’s a bumble bee.
“The flower is specifically shaped for its pollinator,” he said. “They have a mass of pollen on the stamen, and the pollen sticks to the intruder as it leaves the flower. There’s no nectar in the flower. It looks good, smells good, attracts them but it is a fake. The pollinator gets absolutely nothing out of the relationship, but the orchid gets pollinated.”
For the past seven years Hicks, a lifelong artist, has been drawing orchids in addition to photographing them.
He has given presentations and slide shows about orchids at public libraries, for Mahoosuc Land Trust, Western Mountains Senior College, Webb Lake Association, and Boothbay Coastal Botanical Gardens.
A few of his drawings are also on display at the Mill Hill Inn in Bethel.
Asked which orchid is his favorite, he replied much like a parent.
“I like them all,” he said.
Anyone interested in talking to Hicks about orchids is welcome to call him at 875-2766.