Canadian Rockies Ecoregion
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.
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.
What is an ecoregion?
Imagine an area of land, say, your backyard or your neighborhood, and strip all life away from it. Remove all plants and animals; all the squirrels, trees, and insects, until all that is left is a barren landscape of rock and water. This area now contains no life. However, the potential for life still remains. The assemblages of plants and animals that could survive and reproduce in the area are very specific and predictable by factors that you can measure. By compiling a list of physical features such as elevation, latitude, rock type, and continental position you can get an understanding of the area’s facilities and abiotic (non-living) resources, and thus an idea of the plant and animal communities that it may host. This exercise roughly describes what is known as an ecological region, or ecoregion.
The exact definition of an ecoregion is a little fuzzy because different organizations define them and use them in slightly different ways. Generally, though, ecoregions describe the composition and patterns of how plants and animals are distributed across particular landscapes based on factors such as climate, landform, soil, and hydrology.
The ecoregion in which Silvercrown Mountain Outdoor School is located is called the Canadian Rockies ecoregion. This ecoregion will be the focus of all other articles you can read on this website. The Canadian Rockies ecoregion is characterized largely by the features of the Selkirk Mountains, the Columbia River, and the Pend Oreille River.
Moderate mountains and large valleys stretch across our ecoregion. The Selkirks are often described as the western foothills of the Rockies, but their geologic origins are actually completely separate. Like many of the northern mountains, however, their once-sharp ridges were tamed by millions of years of glaciation. The many lakes, bogs, and U-shaped valleys we see today are a result of the ebb and flow of moving ice that carved and eroded the ancient landscape.
Although there were vast glaciers in the past, the present climate is much different. The summers are dry and hot, often peaking in the high 90’s (F). The winters are cold and can drop below 0 degrees F. Annual precipitation averages between 24-34 inches, but can range from 18 inches on the western side to more than 80 inches on the eastern side of the region. The majority of the ground water, however, comes from melting snow in the spring, as significant snowpack can accumulate in higher elevations. The climate creates four very distinct seasons; hot and sunny summers, moderate and moist falls, cold and snowy winters, and wet and lush springs.
Plant communities in the region are greatly influenced by precipitation, temperature, and elevation. Coniferous forests characterize the majority of the area. Douglas-fir and Ponderosa Pine occur at lower elevations; Grand Fir, Western Hemlock, and Western Red Cedar occupy the mid-montane elevations; and Subalpine Fir-Engelmann Spruce forests occur at higher elevations. Open grasslands, dominated by Green Fescue, Idaho Fescue, or Rough Fescue, are common along the foothills and on south-facing slopes at higher elevations. There are also many other plant species that can only be found in our ecoregion, or are very rare in other parts of Washington. This is due to the unique limestone rock formations found here, which have slowly eroded and become a distinctive component of the soils.
The vegetation of this ecoregion provides habitat for many animal species. Nearly all of the mammals native to the area are still present today, including Moose, Wolves, Lynx, Wolverines and the extremely rare Mountain Caribou. Grizzly Bears also frequent the region, making this one of only five areas in the lower 48 states. Diverse bird populations occur due to the many lakes, ponds, and rivers of the ecoregion. Golden and Bald Eagles can often be found along rivers, as well as Osprey. Boreal and Great Gray Owls abound, as well as Red-necked Grebes, rails, Three-toed Woodpeckers, numerous species of Chickadees, Kinglets, and Warblers, and many others. The waters of this ecoregion are also host to a diverse group of animals, including Burbot, river otters, muskrats, Mountain Whitefish, and Bull Trout. Some locations are home to White Sturgeon, which can grow over eight feet in length.
The Canadian Rockies Ecoregion of Washington is some of the wildest country in the state. Huge rivers, accessible mountain peaks, and large valleys characterize the landscape. The climate is a mixture of maritime and continental conditions, which results in four distinct seasons. The plant communities are diverse; these range from boreal terrain at high elevations to xeric Ponderosa Pine at low elevations, and even include moist western red-cedar forests sharing many species with the costal Washington communities. Animal diversity is just as rich, as the region hosts some of the only remaining grizzly bear and mountain caribou populations in the United States. The Canadian Rocky Mountain ecoregion offers excellent opportunities to learn about a beautifully unique part of Washington state, and to experience the grandeur of the local wilderness.