I have a fondness for inconspicuous orchids. These are orchids with flowers no wider than fingertips and colors as green as leaves or even as brown as shadows. The flowering of these delicate orchids has ended in our forests, and when I walked in the hills two weeks ago I found their fruits were swelling. When I squeezed them they were still a little soft. On that walk I saw two kinds of inconspicuous orchids, rattlesnake plantains (Goodyera) and coral-roots (Corallorhiza).
Two weeks ago, the fruiting stalks of rattlesnake plantain stood erect and held their small green fruits to the side. The blackened and dried fragments of the orchid petals remained like weathered ribbons at the tips of the fruits. I slit one of the fruits with my knife to look at the seeds, which were extremely small. Using my hand lens, I could see fine lines along the sides of the dun-colored seeds.
Further up the trail and closer to the sunny edge of the forest, there was a clump of coral-root stalks. Each of these stalks was bearing fruits that were like fleshy, full wine botas. These fruit flasks hung stiffly downward along the sides of the stalks. Like the fruits of the rattlesnake plantains, the coral-root fruits had twisted bits of blackened petals at their tips.
I slit open one of the fruits and was surprised to find that the seeds were faintly yellow. They were a little larger than the seeds of the rattlesnake plantain, but the fruits of the coral-root were also a little larger than those of the other orchid. None-the-less, the coral-root seeds seemed delicate and wispy, which was accentuated, I suppose, by their yellowness. With the split fruit and exposed seeds on my fingertip, I blew gently on them, and the light seeds caught the air and flew away.
For the past two weeks, I’ve been trying to find the time to revisit the woods with the fruiting stalks of the rattlesnake plantain and coral-root. Yesterday, I walked back to them. All green was gone from the rattlesnake plantain. Its leaves had withered and the now brittle fruiting stalks of some had broken and hung sideways. The dried fruits of the rattlesnake plantain had opened along lines on their sides that traced a slight curve, as if willing to twist into a helix. Their seeds had been released. The plump, reddish fruits of the coral-root had continued to swell in the last two weeks, and they remained fleshy rather than dried. The fruit stalks stood tall with unopened fruits. I thought about the anticipation of the seeds inside, how the slightest crack in those burgeoning fruits will break loose the yellow seeds, releasing them to wind and, eventually, to the shadows of soil.