Who isn’t a little weird? Here at the Center for Biological Diversity, we celebrate peculiarity in every one of its human and animal (and plant) forms. After all, who’d want to live in a world without weirdness?

Canelo Hills Ladies’ Tresses: Beautiful Introverts

In this installment of Save the Weirdos: a Southwest wetland orchid both conspicuously beautiful and manifestly reclusive.

Photo by Jim Rorabaugh, USFWS

If a person had hair as lovely as Canelo Hills ladies’ tresses, we’re pretty sure they’d want to show it off. These oddly named orchids have tall, slender stalks with spirals of dainty, snow-white flowers — as many as 40 flowers per stalk — that look like long, wavy locks of hair. At least, as much as any plant can look like hair …

Regardless, the cute little blossoms are a sight to behold.

© Robin Silver

These ladies’ tresses, however, will not be shown off — as if they’d prefer not to be beheld at all.

Though these Southwest wetland natives are presumed to be perennial, mature Canelo Hills ladies’ tresses rarely flower in consecutive years. Sometimes they produce no visible above-ground structures at all, instead remaining in a dormant, subterranean state for years. (Non-flower experts, FYI: Most perennials grace us with their presence at least yearly, existing as underground bulbs for the rest of the time.)

When — rather, if — they do come out to greet the sun, it’s typically in May. But they don’t show their flowers till July and August, as if their blooms are seduced by the season’s monsoon rains.

Ladies’ tresses are also “late bloomers” — literally. After the plants reproduce, seedlings form an association with “mycorrhizal” (symbiotic) fungi. These colonize the plants’ root systems, helping them absorb more water and nutrients in exchange for carbohydrates the plants produce. Meanwhile ladies’ tresses “youngsters” hide underground for several years before they let their very first stalk peep out from beneath the soil — and who knows how long after that before they dare flower.

(Fun fact: The second half of this plant’s scientific name, Spiranthes delitescens, is derived from the Latin delitescere, which means “to hide” or “to withdraw.”)

Why so shy?

Well, the answer’s mysterious. It may have to do with the time needed for the subterranean structures to produce growth — which scientists haven’t pinned down. Or maybe it’s related to the hot, dry conditions of the plants’ range in Arizona’s San Pedro River watershed: They live in habitats called “cienegas” — unique spring-fed wetlands restricted to southeast Arizona that can basically be described as a spongy wet meadow with black, squishy soil.

If we were to attribute personalities to these plants, we’d surmise that they hide from our view because either (a) they don’t know their own beauty, or (b) they are shy — bashful to an extreme.

Of course, these are plants, whose vanity or modesty we can’t claim expertise on. So we’ll just say their reclusive lives are…intriguing.

Sadly, their mostly underground existence makes saving these extraordinary beauties extraordinarily difficult: Estimating their population size and stability is never exact because nonflowering plants are hard to find and dormant plants go uncounted.

And these ladies’ tresses urgently need saving — in summer 2016, only 12 individuals were counted.

The Center has been working to protect Canelo Hills ladies’ tresses since 1993 (earning them Endangered Species Act protection a few years later). Want to help us save these and other imperiled weirdos around the world? Join our email list, donate if you can, and make sure to LIKE this article (just click the ❤ symbol to the lower left).