Thursday, July 29, 2010

Long-bracted Green Orchis (Dactylorhiza viride var. virescens)

The Long-bracted Green Orchis is named for the bracts under each flower which are longer than the flowers and give the flower spikes a rather feathery appearance.  The genus is found around the world in the Northern Hemisphere and has only the one species, though there are several varieties, two of them found in the Pacific Northwest, though one only in very limited alpine areas.

This variety is the more common in North America (the other is found only in Alaska, but is very common in Europe and Asia).  It is considered "rare to local" in the areas where it can be found, but this may be due in part to the fact that unless seen close-up, it resembles many of the green-flowered Platantheras, and when we found it was actually growing among them.

We had stopped along the road to take pictures of a field of Wood Lilies and had seen some Platanthera huronensis and Piperia unalascensis growing nearby.  Only when we looked closely did we notice the Dactylorhizas growing among them.  Interestingly, the other species were found in a wet area at the foot of the bank while the Dactylorhizas tended to grow a little up the bank and drier.

The long distinctively notched lip makes this species immediately recognizable.  The flowers are green and the flower parts form a sort of hood above the lip.  The flowers were quite closely arranged on the spikes and in the case of the plants we saw had about thirty flowers per spike.  The plants were about 10-25 cm in height and the flowers about 1.5 cm long.

The species ranges from Alaska to Newfoundland and south to Washington, New Mexico, Iowa and North Carolina.  We found it in Alberta in Jasper National Park along the Maligne Lake Road in July, though the information we have indicates that the flowers appear to be perfect long after they have been pollinated and that certainly appeared to be case on some flower spikes.

Note (2017): this species has recently been reclassified as Dactylorhiza and the information in the post has been changed accordingly.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Phantom Orchid (Cephalanthera austiniae)

The Phantom Orchid is certainly the most unusual of our native orchids.  It is the only North American species from the genus Cephalanthera, but even among the other species of that genus it is unique.  It is saprophytic, living off decaying material in the soil, and completely without chlorophyll.

Stem, leaves and flowers are bone white, with only a spot of yellow on the lips of the flowers.  The leaves are very small and the plant is mostly stem and flowers, growing as tall as 60 cm with flowers that are quite large, about 3 cm.  All this adds up to quite show when the plants are in flower.

They grow on the forest floor, often in very open, but heavily shaded and dark areas, and the white plants make a dramatic show that cannot be missed, and that has earned this species its common name.  Typical was a location we visited recently and at which the following photos were taken.

We were on the Washington side of the Columbia River Valley and had followed an old Forest Service road into a dry, mature woodland where there was almost no underbrush.  Almost as soon as we entered the shady woods we could see the Phantom Orchids growing on the hillside above us mostly as individual plants scattered over a large area.

Two species of Coralroots were growing in the same area, though both were finished flowering.  This was no surprise since they too are saprophytes and prefer similar conditions.  The Phantom Orchids, however, were much more visible than the Coralroots.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Kostiuk's Hybrid Calypso

There are two American varieties of Calypso bulbosa, the Fairy Slipper, var. americana, the Eastern Fairy Slipper, and var. occidentalis, the Western Fairy Slipper.  The names are a bit misleading, since the Western Fairy Slipper is found only in the far west, and the Eastern Fairy Slipper is found across the United States and Canada with the exception of the Pacific Northwest coast.  There is a rare hybrid of these two varieties, Kostiuk's Hybrid Calypso, Calypso bulbosa x kostiukiae, found where the ranges of the two varieties overlap.  We've found this hybrid in eastern Washington.

Fairy Slipper (Calypso bulbosa)

Calypso bulbosa, the Fairy-slipper orchid, is without doubt one of our most beautiful natives and is found from Alaska all the way across Canada and in the northernmost United States, including the Pacific Northwest, the upper Great Lakes area and northern New England.

The plant is almost always found in shaded areas, often along trails and openings in the woodlands where its bright pink color stands out and is easily seen, even though the plant and flower are very small, the plant usually about 20 cm or less and the flowers about 3 cm.

There are some variations, but the plant is usually single flowered and usually has a single leaf that persists after the flower is finished. It is relatively common in our area and we have almost always found it when hiking in the spring in the North Cascades.

Its common name is Hider-of-the-North, a very appropriate name because of its small size and also because it is usually found as a single plant and flower, though when it is happy it will often form large stands, but these are vulnerable to changes in the habitat.

There are actually four varieties of this orchid, one variety found only in Japan and another found across northern Eurasia. The other two are found in North America, varieties americana and occidentalis, both of them shown below and distinguished by the color of the "beard."

Calypso bulbosa var. americana, the Eastern Fairy Slipper, is the more common variety and the only variety found east of the Rocky Mountains. It is easily distinguished by its yellow beard and white lip and is the more brightly colored of the two North American varieties.

Calypso bulbosa var. occidentalis, the Western Fairy Slipper, is found only in the Cascade mountain range and west of the Rockies in Alaska, British Columbia, Washington, Oregon, California, Idaho and Montana. It has a white beard and a lip that is heavily spotted with brownish-purple.  It is, in our area, by far the more common variety and the one we have seen most often.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Small Round-leaf Orchis (Galearis rotundifolia)

The Small Round-leaf Orchis was originally classified as Orchis rotundifolia since it is most closely related to that European genus, but was reclassified as Amerorchis in 1968 and more recently as Galearis. It is the only species in the genus and has no other close North American relatives.

This plant ranges from Alaska through Canada to Greenland, and south into the United States into Montana and Wyoming and from Minnesota eastward to Maine. Sadly, it is not found in Washington state.  It prefers open woodlands and boggy areas.

The plant is reported to grow to 35 cm tall, though the plants we have seen have all been much shorter, the tallest about 18 cm. The delightful bird-like or angel-like flowers are about 1-1.5 cm tall with 10-15 flowers per plant.  The plant has a single round leaf at the base.

There are various color forms, including a pure white form, but we have not seen all of these varieties (see below) and they are quite rare. The usual form, however, is quite abundant in some locations and we have seen them by the thousands in several areas.

We've found this orchid several times in British Columbia and Alberta. We saw it first in British Columbia off an access road where it was growing with Cypripedium parviflorum and Platanthera huronensis.  We've since seen it in the area of Edmonton, Alberta.

Another BC location is in Mount Robson Provincial Park, where it was growing just beyond the bridge south of the Kinney lake campground and along the lake and on the edge of the woods past the bridge and then again along the river in the Whitehorn campground and north to White Falls.

We've seen two color varieties of this species  the striped-lip form, Galearis rotundifolia fma. lineata, found on an orchid hunting trip near Edmonton with a friend, and the nearly white forms, Galearis rotundifolia fma. wardii and fma. immaculata, with only some pale coloring on the lip, seen along the Berg Lake Trail in Mount Robson Provincial Park.

Hunting Native Orchids

I’ve never been a hunter and never've had either the time or inclination to become one, but last year that all changed.  I've discovered the thrill of the chase, of the shot and of having a trophy to show for it all.  I've found out the thrill of hunting native orchids and of shooting them with a camera.  I'd grown exotic tropical orchids for over thirty years and will continue to do so as long as I'm able.  I’ve  grown them on windowsills, under lights, in wardian cases, outdoors, and in a greenhouse. Their endless variety and stunning beauty are things I'll never tire of, but in the last few years I’ve found the search for native orchids to be as exciting and wonderful as seeing the blooms on a new tropical species or hybrid.

My family and I have done a lot of hiking, and have always enjoyed the wildflowers including the native orchids.  Over the years, while hiking, we had opportunity to see and photograph a number of them, but had never actively searched for them.  In 2008, however, my wife, my youngest son and I saw an extraordinary number of native orchids on our hikes in the North Cascades.  One of the most beautiful was the tiny Fairy Slipper, Calypso bulbosa, growing along the Thunder Creek trail in North Cascades National Park.

In trying to identify these native orchids I came across the website of the Washington Native Orchid Society and decided to join after seeing their pictures and reading of their outings.  Last year (2009) was my first year as a member and my wife, my youngest son, and I were able to go on several of their monthly spring and summer outings.  These outings took us to such varied places as Deschutes State Park, Whidbey Island, Orcas Island, Mount Rainier and Mount Adams.

On the first outing, on a very wet and rainy day in April, we went to see Calypso bulbosa growing by the thousands in the Bald Hills of western Washington.  We saw other rare native plants also, but this tiny native orchid was the highlight of the trip.  On the second trip we went to a site on Whidbey Island in the San Juans where we saw four native orchids including a very rare leafless orchid, Corallorhiza maculata var. ozettensis.  This orchid grows in only a few locations in western Washington and had only recently been discovered on Whidbey Island.  By the time we returned from that trip we were hooked.

On other trips we saw a species of Ladies' Tresses in the Muddy Meadows area of Mount Adams and various other species there and in the Olympic Mountains, but the highlight of the summer was a hiking trip to the Canadian Rockies in the course of which we did some very active orchid hunting.  This didn't involve the local Native Orchid Society, but was intended to be a backpacking vacation.  It turned into a two-week orchid hunt, that took us not only to Mount Robson but to Jasper and Banff National Parks and to other areas of the Canadian Rockies.

On that trip we found and photographed fifteen different orchid species including three different species of Lady’s Slippers.  We did our hiking in Mount Robson Provincial Park, but also found orchids in other locations along the roads and in two places where we had been sent to look for them.  In one location we found thousands of the Yellow Lady’s Slipper, Cypripedium parviflorum (also known as Cyp. calceolus), and in another a whole hillside of the Mountain Lady’s Slipper, Cypripedium montanum.  In the park itself we found both these species and the exquisitely beautiful Sparrow’s Egg Lady’s Slipper, Cypripedium passerinum, as well as numerous other less showy orchids.

This summer we’ve renewed our membership in the Washington Native Orchid Society and are looking forward to more of their excursions and to seeing more of Washington’s forty-two native orchids.  We’ve also made plans to go back to Mount Robson and revisit some of the wonderful places we saw last year.  We intend, if time allows, to make some excursions on our own for the purpose of orchid hunting, perhaps as far away as Oregon.  We've become avid hunters and can recommend the activity to others.

Some advice fr those who are interested: anyone can find native orchids simply by keeping their eyes open.  We see them quite often from the windows of the car as we are driving and usually stop if we have time.  But if you're interested in seeing more of them there are several things you can do.  Joining a local native orchid society, if such exists in your area, is one possibility.  The other thing is ask questions.  We’ve learned to do that, especially in the National Parks and have almost always found someone who knows where the native orchid species are growing.

Nor does one have to be an active hiker to see these wonderful plants and flowers.  The members of our own Native Orchid Society are all ordinary folk including several grandmothers, and none of them besides our own family are hikers and backpackers.  Some dedication is required, especially on a rainy day, but for the most part our excursions with the Society are easy and short walks.  Indeed, that has been one of the surprises of our membership in the Society - that so many orchids are so accessible and so easily found.

Two things especially need to be emphasized, though.  First, these lovely native flowers should be hunted only with a camera or for the pure joy of seeing them in the wild. They should never be dug up or the flowers picked.  They're too rare for that, and most of them will die if transplanted.  They're far more valuable than the popular exotic tropical orchids: these can't be replaced.  For this reason, I keep the locations of the orchids I’ve found private or share them only with those I trust.  The other thing I'd want to emphasize is that these orchids are often found on private land and permission should be obtained before opening gates and trampling through fields.

Having experienced the delight of finding these native species in the wild, we hope that others do too.  Indeed, if anyone is in western Washington during the spring and summer months our society or our family would be more than willing to help them find and see Washington's native orchids in their native habitats.

List of native orchids pictured (top to bottom):
Cypripedium parviflorum var. pubescens
Calypso bulbosa var. occidentalis
Corallorhiza maculata var. ozettensis
Spiranthes romanzoffiana
Cypripedium montanum
Cypripedium passerinum
Corallorhiza maculata var.occidentalis