Sphinx ladies’ tresses

(Spiranthes incurva)

Conservation Status
Sphinx ladies’ tresses
Photo by Julie Calligure
  IUCN Red List

not listed


N5? - Secure

SNR - Unranked


not listed

Wetland Indicator Status
  Great Plains

FACW - Facultative wetland


FACW - Facultative wetland

  Northcentral & Northeast

FACW - Facultative wetland


Sphinx ladies’ tresses is a 4 to 16 tall, erect, perennial forb that rises on a single stalk from a tight cluster of fleshy roots.

There are usually 2 or 3, sometimes 4 or 5, grass-like mostly basal leaves which may be withered or present when the plant is in bloom. They are light green, ascending to spreading, linear lance-shaped to linear inversely lance-shaped, 4 to 8 long, and 3 16 to wide. They taper to a sharp point at the tip. The margins are untoothed.

The stems are erect, unbranched, and leafless except for 3 to 6 bracts below the inflorescence, The bracts are alternate, scale-like, sheathing, and hairless.

The inflorescence is 2 or 3 intertwined, tightly spiraling, 2 to 5 long flower spikes at the top of the stem with 20 to 60 individual flowers. The flowers on each spike are arranged in spirals of 3 or 4 flowers per cycle of spiral, rarely in loose spirals of 5 or more flowers per cycle. The spirals are not evident due to the intertwining of the spikes. The spikes are light green and moderately hairy.

Each flower is subtended by a scale-like, egg-shaped to lance-shaped bract.

The flowers are about ½ long and abruptly nodding at the base. There are 3 white to cream colored or ivory petals and 3 similar petal-like sepals. The upper 2 petals converge with but do not fuse with the upper sepal to form a hood over the united filaments and style (column). The tips of the upper petals and sepal curve upward slightly. The lower petal forms an egg-shaped lip that arches strongly downward. The central portion of the lip is sometimes slightly yellowish and is constricted near the middle. The lip is crisped at the tip. The lateral 2 sepals are linear- lance-shaped, straight or slightly spreading, not recurving, often slightly ascending. The margins of the lateral sepals are rolled inward. The flowers are not scented.




4 to 16


Flower Color


White to cream colored or ivory


Similar Species


Great Plains ladies’ tresses (Spiranthes magnicamporum) stems are leafless at flowering. The lateral 2 sepals are shaped like a pair of cow’s horns. The central portion of the lower lip is never constricted. The flowers are almond-scented.


Moist. Prairies, bogs, fields, ditches. Full sun.




July to September


Pests and Diseases






Distribution Map



7, 24, 29, 30.









  Kingdom Plantae (green algae and land plants)  
  Subkingdom Viridiplantae (green plants)  
  Infrakingdom Streptophyta (land plants and green algae)  
  Superdivision Embryophyta (land plants)  
  Division Tracheophyta (vascular plants)  
  Subdivision Spermatophytina (seed plants)  
  Class Liliopsida (monocots)  


Asparagales (agaves, orchids, irises, and allies)  


Orchidaceae (orchids)  
  Subfamily Orchidoideae (orchidoid orchids)  
  Tribe Cranichideae  
  Subtribe Spiranthinae  


Spiranthes (ladies’-tresses)  
  Species Complex Spiranthes cernua complex (nodding ladies’ tresses complex)  

Ancient hybridization between species in the Sprianthes genus has evolved genetically distinct but morphologically overlapping species. Spiranthes cernua has been long known to be a species complex with overlapping characteristics that make identification to the species in the field or in the lab difficult or impossible. A recent study (Pace and Cameron, 2017) clarified the species boundaries within the Spiranthes cernua species complex using molecular DNA sequences and morphological variation. The study resulted in the description of three new species, a new hybrid, and a much narrower concept of the species Spiranthes cernua. The Upper Midwestern ladies’ tresses formerly included in the species Spiranthes cernua are now assigned to the new species Spiranthes incurva.




Ibidium cernuum

Spiranthes cernua var. incurva


Common Names


Sphinx ladies’ tresses













Modified leaf at the base of a flower stalk, flower cluster, or inflorescence.



The united filaments and style of an orchid. The structure formed by the united filaments of plants in the Mallow family.



Long, straight, and narrow, with more or less parallel sides, like a blade of grass.



An outer floral leaf, usually green but sometimes colored, at the base of a flower.



The lower part of the leaf that surrounds the stem.

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Julie Calligure

    Sphinx ladies’ tresses      
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  Spiranthes incurva (Sphinx ladies-Tresses)
Allen Chartier
  Spiranthes incurva (Sphinx ladies-Tresses)  

Formerly Spiranthes cernua (Northern Ladies Tresses)




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Other Videos
  piranthes incurva, the Sphinx ladies' tresses
Orchids of the Oak Openings

Sep 5, 2019

195 views Sep 5, 2019 Spiranthes incurva, the Sphinx ladies' tresses, is one of the two new orchids added to the Oak Openings species list, pursuant to the 2017 clarification and reclassification of the Spiranthes species complex by Matthew Pace and Kenneth Cameron.

  Spiranthe sphinx/Sphinx ladies' tresses (Spiranthes incurva)
Dominique Lalonde Films Nature

Jul 21, 2021

Découvrez les fleurs sauvages du Québec.
Discover the wild flowers of Quebec.
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  Julie Calligure

Location: Sax-Zim Bog, St. Louis Co.

Sphinx ladies’ tresses  
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