Perennial herb 5 - 20 cm tall Leaves: two (often only one in sterile individuals), basal, spreading, very short-stalked to sheathing, dull deep green with more pale midrib, non-toothed, hairless, fleshy, 6 - 20 cm long, 2 - 10 cm wide, inversely egg-shaped to oblong or elliptic, broadest at or above middle with narrowed base and wide, blunt tip. Inflorescence: a single, erect, terminal, stalked, compact, spike-like cluster of five to eight short-stalked flowers with each flower subtended by a conspicuous, leaf-like, 1.5 - 8 cm long, 0.5 - 1.5 cm wide, lance-shaped, pointed-tipped bract. Flowers: short-stalked, delicately fragrant, bicolored pink and white, 2 - 4 cm long, bilaterally symmetric with sepals and upper petals forming hood over prominent lip petal, which has base modified into a club-shaped nectar spur. The reproductive parts of stamens, stigma and style are fused into a column above the 1 - 2 cm long inferior ovary. Sepals: three, petal-like, pink to pale purple, 1 - 1.5 cm long, 0.5 - 0.6 cm wide, egg- to lance-shaped or elliptic, forward curving and converging (but not fused) with two lateral petals to form a hood over the column and lip. Petals: three, but lowest modified into white (rarely pink), egg-shaped, 1 - 1.8 cm long, 0.6 - 1.5 cm wide, fairly wavy-edged lip with base extending backwards into a 0.9 - 2 cm long, club-shaped, blunt spur. The lateral petals are pink or pale purple, 1 - 1.3 cm long, about 2 mm wide, linear, and they converge with the sepals in forming a hood over the column and above the lip. Fruit: several, short-stalked, erect, stout, oblong or ellipsoid capsules with three raised lengthwise angles, and subtended by withered bracts. Flowering stem: single, erect, green, four- to five-angled, fleshy, hairless, leafless above base. This leafless structure terminated by flowers is called a scape and technically is not a true stem. Roots: clustered, fleshy, not tuberous-thickened.
Similar species: Sterile plants of Galearis spectabilis may be confused with Liparis liliifolia, but that species has glossy, yellow-green, thin, less fleshy leaves, which are usually broadest at or below the middle and have a more pointed tip. Possibly some could confuse our showy orchis with Triphora trianthophora, but that species blooms in the late summer and into fall, the bracts are egg-shaped and much shorter than the flowers, there are no basal leaves only small stem leaves, and the sepals are spreading. Outside of the Chicago Region, the most similar species is probably Amerorchis rotundifolia, but the leaves of that species are orbicular and usually much shorter (3-8 cm), the sepals and petals do not form a tight hood over the column, and the lip is obviously three-lobed and spotted with purple.
Flowering: early April to early June
Habitat and ecology: Uncommon, rich mesic forests to drier areas of mesic flatwoods and floodplain forests, but typically not tolerant of dense shade. Usually found with many spring ephemeral flowers, often under sugar maple, and particularly common on cooler, north-facing slopes and in ravine bottoms.
Occurence in the Chicago region: native
Notes: This is probably the earliest flowering orchid in the Chicago Region. There are two noteworthy color forms of the species: Galearis spectabilis forma gordinierii (House) Whiting & Catling with entirely white flowers, and G. spectabilis forma willeyi (Seymour) P.M . Brown with entirely pink flowers. There are only two species in the genus Galearis, this one from eastern North America (not west of eastern Nebraska), and the other from east Asia.
Etymology: Galearis comes from the Greek word galea meaning hood or helmet, which refers to the sepals and lateral petals joining to form a hood over the column and lip petal. Spectabillis means remarkable or showy, in reference to the showy colored flowers.
Lvs 2, rather fleshy, narrowly obovate to broadly elliptic, 8-15 cm; scape 1-2 dm, stout; bracts foliaceous, lance-oblong, 15-50 mm; sep and lateral pet pink to pale purple, 13-18 mm, all connivent; lip white, 15-20 mm, rhombic-ovate; spur stout, about equaling the lip; 2n=42. Rich woods; N.B. to Minn. and Nebr., s. to Ga. and Ark. May, June. (Galeorchis s.; Galearis s.)
Gleason, Henry A. & Cronquist, Arthur J. 1991. Manual of vascular plants of northeastern United States and adjacent Canada. lxxv + 910 pp.