In Bloom: Orchid Hunting
Welcome to another summer season of In Bloom!
In this column we’ll follow the wildflowers as they bloom throughout the Roaring Fork Valley and surrounding mountains. Every wildflower, whether showy or modest, rare or ubiquitous, has a story to tell. This column is dedicated to telling those stories, and hopefully enriching your summer hikes.
What better way to start then with perhaps the most storied flower of all: the orchid. Rivaling the Aster family for most species of any flowering plant—upwards of 30,000 species are found on every continent save Antarctica—orchids are treasured for their unique shapes and exotic colors. While the vast majority are found in the tropics, Colorado is blessed to have 30 species, most of which can be found in our area.
“Can” being the operative word. Some species are so rare, or difficult to find, they elude the most determined orchid hunters, including the author. Others can be seen from the car window.
Currently on display in the Roaring Fork Valley is one of Charles Darwin’s favorite flowers, the Yellow lady’s slipper, Cypripedium parviflorum. It consists of a bulbous, central petal—the “slipper”—and two twisted, maroon-spotted petals—“ties” to keep the slipper on a lady’s foot. This orchid can be found nestled in grasses along ditches and streams between Basalt and Carbondale.
Ingeniously, and explaining Darwin’s fascination, the yellow and maroon coloring attracts pollinators with the promise of nectar — which doesn’t exist — and the pouch-like slipper entraps them. The pollinator, most commonly a small bee, must crawl through the pouch to reach the exit holes in the rear. Here they smear their backs with sticky yellow pollen, or rub off pollen from the last orchid, ensuring cross-pollination.
Another wetland lover, but much easier to spot as it seems to favor roadside ditches above 8,000’, is the White bog orchid, Platanthera dilatata. Its heady fragrance and intricate flowers merit stopping the car for closer inspection. Instead of a pouch, this orchid’s lower petal is narrowly triangular and terminates at the back in a sac-like spur. The shape and length of the spur varies among different species of bog orchids to fit the tongue-length of the moth that pollinates it, a wonderful example of co-adaptation.
Finally, no piece on orchids would be complete without mentioning the local favorite, the Fairy slipper, Calypso bulbosa. Named for the sea nymph of Homer’s Odyssey, its magenta coloring lights up dark forests like those in East Snowmass Creek and Hunter/Smuggler. Don’t delay, though: Fairy slippers are the first orchids to bloom, in late May or early June, and are the first to go. No summer should begin without an alluring Calypso encounter!
Karin Teague, director of the Independence Pass Foundation, is a 25-year resident of the Roaring Fork Valley and devoted student of its wildflowers. To see more facts and photos of the flowers featured here and blooming in real time on Independence Pass, go to the 2021 Wildflower Checklist at independencepass.org
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