Jenny King on June 10th, 2011

Eastern fairy-slipper orchid in northeastern Washington

When most people think about the flowering plants orchids, the mind inevitably drifts to images of warm, vibrant, and humid tropical forests. The general association of orchids with the tropics is not misplaced, as this enormous plant family finds a great majority of its species rather restricted to habitats around the world’s equator. Certainly some orchid blossoms grow in unique and delicate shapes so that they look more like exotic jungle birds or butterflies than basic flowers. However, like the few rebellious members found in any large family, a small set of orchid species have spread and adapted to the colder, drier environments of more northern latitudes. Thanks to such evolutionary diversification, the Canadian Rockies ecoregion is home to several orchid species; Eastern fairyslipper orchids (photo above, Calypso bulbosa), American Frog orchids (Coeloglossum viride), coralroot orchids (photo below, Corallorhiza striata), Bog or Fen orchids (Liparis loeselii and Platanthera), and White Piperia or White Pearl orchids (Piperia).

Description of a typical northern orchid

The sight of such intricate wildflowers in forests with the harsh winter climate of the Canadian Rockies ecoregion is often a pleasant spring surprise for hikers and outdoor enthusiasts. All wild orchids in northeastern Washington grow on the ground, and so are called terrestrial or geophytic species. Their flowering stalks, which on orchids are commonly called “spikes,” typically extend straight up from the ground and range in height among the species in this region from several inches to almost two feet tall. This spike will contain either a single or numerous individual flowers depending on the species. Orchid flowers are distinguishable by their irregular arrangement of 6 petals and sepals; 5 are generally small and similar in color, but one petal is larger, “lipped,” and usually more distinctive in color and pattern in order to signal insect pollinators and serve as their landing platform (Koopowitz 2001).

Ironically, however, the showiness of orchids to woodland insects does not always make them easy for a human eye to spot in a casual sweep of the forest floor. The same intricate spike and flower markings that create a target to the eyes of wasps or butterflies can just as easily camouflage some orchids from hikers or other animals (likely a handy survival trick evolved by escaping herbivores!). This is particularly true of the shade-loving species that thrive among underbrush or in similarly dim places. Finding orchids is therefore much easier if you know what to look for before heading outside.

How to find an orchid

The prime time to be on the lookout for wild North American orchids is now (late spring/early summer), with the exact timing of bloom each year varying just as in other wildflowers. These growth-timing patterns are known as “phenology,” and much more information on this topic in numerous plant species can be found through the program “Project Budburst” on their interactive website. Unusually early or late growing seasons such as this year may influence the phenology of orchids severely; in extreme cases the plants may not sprout or else bloom successfully at all.

While the initial finding may be tricky, another exciting trait of terrestrial orchids is that spotting one plant likely means finding a whole patch. Most orchids spread through vegetative propagation more easily than seeds so that, once established in a favorable spot, whole clumps of clonal orchids will reappear each year that weather permits and attempt to spread slowly outward. All of the orchid species in this area have extremely specific growth requirements and so seem restricted to a select few patches of landscape, but once a patch is found it can be an exciting place to return and monitor for change each year. Besides, this elusiveness is one of the traits that make an orchid in the wild exotic and its’ finding fun. Although no orchids in the Canadian Rockies ecoregion are edible, their rarity may inspire a hunt in anyone who also enjoys seeking the mysterious local favorites of the forest floor, huckleberries and morel mushrooms.

The coralroot orchid – a Northport local!

One species I have seen over multiple years and in several locations around Northport, WA, making it a good candidate to look out for anywhere in the area, is the coralroot orchid. These beautiful wildflowers produce tall (1-2 foot) spikes of multiple, delicately striped blossoms. This orchid also happens to be one of the most fascinating plants to grow in this region because it does not use leaves to capture energy from sunlight (the typical process plants use, called photosynthesis)! Instead, coralroot orchid roots surround the roots of mature trees and work with specialized fungi to harvest sugars produced by the much larger and protective plant. Coralroot orchids therefore have no leaves and can only be found by their tall, elegant flower spikes. The two locations where I have happily spotted coralroot orchids in Northport are both east-facing slopes within roughly 20 feet of bodies of water, and both sites are heavily shaded by Douglas-fir trees. Although the exact requirements and plant relationships of coralroot orchids may vary across broader ranges, the similarity of sites here in Northport suggests that the Douglas-fir are what the orchids rely on for nutrition, and that wet soil and dense shade are essential.

Coralroot orchid in northeastern Washington

What to do when you find an orchid

Finally, a general tip for enjoying the wild orchids of the Canadian Rockies ecoregion is to take no more than pictures. Since Victorian times, orchids have become well-known and increasingly collected for their unusual shapes, striking colors, and sometimes strong perfumes. Some species have even become commonly cultivated by the floral industry – think of that all-important orchid corsage from high school prom! However, the orchids that survive in this region have a list of traits making them completely unsuitable for potting or picking (both practices are actually considered poaching and illegal on public lands!); these plants are highly sensitive to disturbance, have uncertain growth requirements, are slow-growing, and are increasingly rare in the local habitat. What you can do to help the wild orchids is document sightings through photos and GPS locations, which are gladly collected by the Washington State Native Orchid Society. For more information on any of the species listed here, to submit orchid location information, or for help identifying orchid species you find, visit their website.

Continue reading about Orchids in Northern Washington State