Monday, July 26, 2010

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

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