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Stalking The Wild Orchids

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Orchids are a wonderfully diverse group of plants. There are over 800 genera of orchids of the family Orchidaceae, and an estimated 22,000–35,000 species. They are the most diverse group of monocots- even outnumbering the lilies (Liliaceae family) in species. Orchids grow naturally everywhere in the world except Antarctica, with the greatest number of the species found in tropical forests. Here in Washington State we have 44 species, mainly found in moist shady forests.

Fairy slipper, Calypso bulbosa, blooms in early to late spring in shaded forests. They are also called calypso fairies. Though exceedingly beautiful, orchids are tremendously difficult to grow, having very narrow environmental conditions in which each species grows. Many are also dependent on other species like fungi (mushrooms), being saprophytic and lacking chlorophyll altogether, making propagation difficult if not impossible.

One of the few commercial products from orchids is vanilla. Real vanilla comes from several species of orchids native to Mexico that were cultivated in Pre-Columbian times, and although this is commercially propagated, the reason vanilla is so expensive is because they are still quite difficult to grow. All of our orchids are better left appreciated in the wild. Though it may be temping to dig them up, they will only survive a season or two in a yard setting at best. One of the least showy of our orchids is this plant- Alaska rein orchid, Piperia unalascensis. As the common name implies this species occurs as far north as Alaska and south to California and New Mexico. One of the more common orchids, this can be found in fairly dry forests and moister swales with some shade, but you have to keep a sharp eye out for it- as the green of its very small flowers blends in with other vegetation easily.

Phantom orchid, Cephalanthera austiniae (synonym: Eburophyton austiniae), is found in moist shaded woods. It is a saprophytic orchid and relies entirely on fungi beneath the ground as it has no green chlorophyll of its own to photosynthesize with and gain energy- hence the pure white color of it and the fact it can live in very deep shade. Saprophytic plants need specific fungal hosts, and these fungi (tiny fungal filaments called mycorrhizae) form relationships with other plants like trees too. If one species dies off through fire or other disturbance it can affect a number of other species. All orchid seeds need an associated fungus in order to germinate as well, as the sugar produced by the fungi is essential. These complex relationships (symbiotic!) between multiple species is part of the reason orchids are rare to begin with- much like all the stars having to align just right, it is tough to have all the elements needed at the same place and time.

Another orchid without chlorophyll is spotted coralroot, Corallorhiza maculata. It is found in more open and dry forests, and is fairly common. This is another one that you might walk right past though, as its reddish color blends in with pine needles and individual flowers are fairly small.

Found throughout the Pacific Northwest, south to California and north to Alaska, this gem is called mountain lady's slipper, Cypripedium montanum. It is fairly rare, liking north facing slopes with lots of shade and moisture, and it took me several years of being a botanist to actually see one of these in bloom.

Even rarer still is the clustered lady's slipper, Cypripedium fasciculatum, which I have yet to have the privilege to see in bloom. I did however spend an entire summer surveying for this plant near Leavenworth and actually found them- but after they flowered. Ah, someday I will catch them in flower!