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.


pedromiramis said...

Great photos of a fascinating plant - very interesting to compare them with the species of this genus in Europe, the shape of the flower is quite similar to Cephalanthera longifolia.

Greetings, peter

Ron said...

I don't think any of the European species are saprophytic, are they?