TREK: Washington's Wild White Orchids
I trek all over the Pacific Northwest & the Southwest looking for wildflowers and medicinal plants but often forget to walk about my own little woods. Sometimes you just have to step outside and wander a bit, paying close attention to your immediate surroundings. This weekend, we cut drooping limbs on several big conifers along the driveway. We dragged the limbs to the forested section of the property to decompose out of sight and suddenly, the non-gardener, the non-plant person in residence here, pointed out these white ghostly-looking plants growing in the shade of several big Douglas Firs. As the plant person in residence, I became very excited, thinking they might be Indian pipe even though the plants were too tall for that species. I grabbed two plant ID books and within minutes, we identified the plant as the rare Phantom Orchid. What a thrill for a plant nerd! The next day, I continued my walk about and discovered a large Mountain Lady’s Slipper in a overgrown section of the property.
I’m not that familiar with orchids because like many people I associate them with the tropics. But the orchid family (Orchidaceae) is the second largest plant family, with about 28,000 species (and still counting) that grow in a variety of diverse climates and habitats all over the planet. The majority of those species live in subtropical and tropical zones and many are epiphytes: non-parasitic plants that grow on tree trunks in the tropical rainforests. The orchids that grow on rock surfaces are called lithophytes, and the orchids found in the ground - like the ones I feature here - are called terrestrials. There are about 200 species native to North America.
For centuries, orchids were highly valued by the wealthy who could afford trips to remote places to collect rare or unusual species and then bring them home to glass greenhouses that were environmentally controlled to replicate the orchids native habitat. In his book, Orchid Fever: A Horticultural Tale of Love, Lust and Lunacy, author Eric Hansen offers an 1963 account of determined orchid collectors, Galfrid and Nora Dunsterville, who were afflicted with orchid obsession AKA orchid fever. Living in Venezuela (he was the president of Shell Oil Co.), the couple climbed the remote Auyan Tepui, a 5000 foot high sandstone plateau that towers the jungle:
A five-day approach on foot, through clouds of biting insects, with a string of local porters, brought them to the foot of the plateau. Then, savaged by ticks, they proceeded to claw their way to the top in two days. Once they reached the rim of the plateau, they stumbled through the wild and broken jungle terrain for the better part of two weeks in search of drinking water, flat places to pitch their tents and new species of orchids. At one point, Nora disappeared with a scream when she fell through the false floor of the jungle. She was rescued from a narrow ledge overlooking a fetid abyss. Then one night during the harrowing descent from the plateau, their entire orchid collection was attacked and partially destroyed by a migrating army of leaf-cutting ants.
I did have to step over some downed branches and almost poked my eye out by walking into a branch while taking photos of my resident orchids but I guess it’s not quite the same.
Orchids in Commerce
Orchids are valued for their brightly colored & unique flower structures and botanists are intrigued with their ecological relationships,specifically their floral apparatus that lures and traps insect pollinators. In the early 20th century, many orchid collectors began hybridizing species, creating a global orchid economy that resulted in making orchids cheaper and accessible to the millions of orchid growers throughout the world. There are now over 100,000 hybrids and the global retail orchid business is estimated at $9 billion annually (figure from 1996). Floricultural, based in the Netherlands, is one of the most productive and successful breeders in the world, producing almost 20 million orchids per year. Greenhouse propagation and international regulation (see CITES) has greatly reduced the collection of many wild orchids though rare ones still are coveted by those with “orchid fever.” Habitat destruction, especially in the tropical regions, is now the biggest threat to the orchid populations.
The Phantom Orchid (Cephalanthera austinae) is native to the North American west and is found in WA, OR, CA, ID and British Columbia. It grows in rich, moist forest soil in deep shade and because it lacks chlorophyll, it does not make its own food. Instead it feeds off soil fungi and is believed to benefit from sugars that are sent through the roots of nearby coniferous trees. The orchid can lie dormant for many years between flowerings but when it does bloom it is in mid-spring to early summer. There’s a fascinating world beneath us that we don’t know much about.
Mountain Lady’s Slipper (Cypripedium montanum) is always a delight to find in mid-spring to early summer. Its distinctive flower, a floral pouch that is suggestive of a lady’s slipper, is unforgettable. One of the largest orchid species found in North America, it can range from 1-2 ft in height with large white flowers and streamer-like purple sepals. More common on the east side of the Cascade Mountains, its growing needs are less specific than the Phantom Orchid and can be found in a variety of habitats. There are over 50 species of lady’s slippers found in boreal, temperate and tropical zones throughout North America, Asia and Europe. Mountain Lady’s Slipper was collected by Lewis & Clark in 1806 but it was David Douglas who collected a specimen in the Blue Mountains of Washington and then gave it its botanical name.
White Bog Orchid (Platantera dilatata) is a member of the largest genera of orchids in North America. Platanthera species are often called butterfly or fringed orchids. Locally common, they prefer moist environments and can be found in bogs, wetlands, seeps and on the edges of streams, rivers and lakes. The species is split into three varieties that are determined by the shape and length of the extended spur on the flowers. These differing spurs have allowed specific moths and butterflies to co-adapt to each variety. They bloom in mid-summer and stand 1-3 feet tall. Their erect structure makes them easy to identify, even when driving by, but it is their spicy fragrance that can sometimes be smelled before they are seen. According to Pojar, some indigenous cultures believed that the orchid was poisonous, while other cultures dug up the tuber-like roots and ate them.
NOTE: Because of their complex relationships with their habitats and their rare or uncommon status, North American orchids should not be picked or harvested.
- Plants of the Pacific Northwest Coast by Pojar & Mackinnon
- Wildflowers of the Pacific Northwest by Turner & Gustafson
- Orchid Fever: A Horticultural Tale of Love, Lust and Lunacy, by Eric Hansen