Of Orchids and Onions

Indiana has enough wild orchids to write a book about, and Michael Homoya wrote it. (Orchids of Indiana, 1993. Indiana University Press) I’m still discovering which ones can be seen at T.C. Steele State Historic Site. Even if I don’t know exactly where to find them. I have it on good authority that the Selma Steele Nature Preserve is home to both the Showy Orchis and the Whorled-Pogonia.

During this year’s Wildflower Foray, I spotted the single leaves of the Cranefly Orchid on the Wildflower Trail. No blooms though. By the time they flower, the leaves will have disappeared. What caught my eye was the deep purple color of the underside of the foliage. Maybe I’ll see them bloom if I’m ambitious enough to hike the trail every day in July and August.

ladies-slipperI don’t think the Showy Orchis is Brown County’s showiest orchid however. That honor has to go the the Yellow Ladies Slipper. I suspected it grew on the site, and sure enough one day I spotted one as I neared the entrance. I’d been driving right past it for several days judging by the condition of the blooms.

All of these orchids are nice, but we have onions too. Our one healthy Walking Onion was planted just last fall, so it hasn’t started walking yet. The chives are now covered with lavender blooms, creating large blocks of color in the formal garden. Later in the summer, their cousins the Garlic Chives will send up their own white globes.

I don’t know why onions have such a bad rep. They’re easy to grow, pretty to look at, dress up a salad (the blossoms are edible) and have lots of health benefits. I’d say they both have their place. The beautiful orchids hide modestly in the forest. The onions are all around — utilitarian, but beautiful just the same.

Davie Kean is the master gardener at the T.C. Steele State Historic Site.


On my way to work I spotted these Wild Turkeys in a neighbor’s yard. The ‘tom’ seemed oblivious as I pulled in the drive to take a picture. And the hen seemed just as oblivious of the tom. Maybe she hoped if she ignored him he would just go away.


Their breeding season begins in March, but it seemed like he wanted an extension. I’ve heard that Benjamin Franklin nominated the Wild Turkey for our national symbol, but the eagle won out. The Bald Eagle is impressive, but I imagine the turkey was more helpful in ensuring the survival of the early American settlers.

They were so important to early Hoosiers, that like the white-tailed deer, turkeys were extirpated from the state by the early 1900s. Poor planning, I guess. And perhaps proof that the ‘Good Old Days’ belong to no particular decade or century. For all the benefits of Selma Steele’s time, it’s very unlikely that she would have enjoyed the sight of Wild Turkeys in her Brown County backyard.

In the early 1930s, the Indiana Department of Conservation tried to bring Wild Turkeys back home again to Indiana — Brown County being one location. Although this attempt failed, they were later successfully reintroduced by the Indiana Department of Fish and Wildlife. Indiana Ruffed Grouse were traded for Wild turkeys from Missouri, and this time it ‘took’.

I remember the first time I saw Wild Turkeys. I was working at a construction site across the highway from Brown County State Park. I don’t know if they were disturbed by the crew’s arrival or if they were ready to leave anyway, but suddenly four or five large objects noisily took off from nearby roosts. I’m sure I was more surprised than they were.

When looked at aerodynamically, bumblebees aren’t supposed to be able to fly. When Wild Turkeys fly, they look like they’ll crash and burn — it’s almost embarrassing to watch. In 1820, Audubon observed turkeys crossing the Ohio river from the Indiana side. Several didn’t make it and were drowned. I wonder if they were just showing off.

Davie Kean is the master gardener at the T.C. Steele State Historic Site.

Thoughts on the Food Chain

Preparing for the Spring Wildflower Foray, I did a pre-hike of the Wildflower Trail here at T.C. Steele State Historic Site. So far this year the trail hasn’t really lived up to its name. Spring has sprung cold and wet. I wasn’t finding many blooms — yet I wasn’t disappointed. As with most hikes, I came upon something unexpected, and that made up for the lack of wildflowers.

Down in a ravine, where the trail runs alongside an intermittant stream, a small animal skull was laying in the middle of the path. Bending down for a closer look, I could see that it had very recently been someone’s dinner (or breakfast). The question was, who-who-who-whos?

The skull was fresh, picked nearly clean with traces of blood still visible. That was all though — no other body parts around. Then I noticed several large white patches on the ground surrounding it. I knew these were some kind of bird droppings, so that narrowed my list of suspects. The second puzzle was the identity of the victim. My first thought was an opossum, but inspecting the teeth, I found they weren’t pointed. The two center teeth curved down and were blunt on the ends — typical of a rodent.

I stood awhile trying to imagine the scene that had taken place only hours earlier. Perhaps an owl had ‘dined’ on a chipmunk then dropped the leftovers from a branch overhead … bad manners. The skull was too large for a chipmunk though. I’ve noticed lots of squirrels this year, maybe there’s one less now. Really, all I could say for certain was, “Bird killed rodent,” but a short while later I heard another possible explanation.

I was telling a co-worker what I’d seen and was overheard by a visitor out birding. He asked what I’d found and I offered my suspicions, that an owl had killed and eaten a squirrel. He thought a squirrel was pretty big prey for an owl (unless it was a Great Horned owl), plus there was no real evidence that the diner was also the killer.

Many birds, like crows, belong to the Clean Plate Club and will finish up what some other critter has already killed and left behind. Hmmm … that could explain why only the skull was there. I was impressed by his reasoning, but frustrated, since he had just reopened the case.

Sometimes trying to figure out a puzzle is as satisfying as finding the solution. I hoped that the skull would still be there the next day for the hike I was leading. Maybe someone in the group would have yet another explanation. Still wondering about it, I went in search of lunch. Maybe I’d just have a salad.

Davie Kean is the master gardener at the T.C. Steele State Historic Site.