In bloom: Orchid hunt |

In bloom: Orchid hunt

Karin Teague
Special to The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado

Living in the Roaring Fork Valley, there are several phenomena of nature that should never be missed: the fall leaves at their peak, 2 feet of January powder, the greening of the ski slopes in June. These are the events that tie us to the seasons and ground us in this place. Similarly, certain wildflowers make a summertime appearance so brief but so memorable that to miss them would feel like missing a birthday.

One such wildflower that can be seen now and only now is the enchanting fairy slipper orchid, Calypso bulbosa. tanding daintily among the needles of our conifer forests, with its flaring, lavender petals framing a white, purple-spotted lower lip that looks to my mind more like a well-appointed cradle than a slipper, the Calypso is arguably the loveliest orchid in North America. One place to find it is along the East Snowmass Creek Trail, just before and after the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness sign.

Why do orchids enchant us so? Partly because of their unique and intricate structures, which have diverged more than almost any other flower from the original form of their primitive ancestors 100 million years ago. Orchids have gone to the greatest lengths in the flower world to adapt to specific pollinators. Some orchids lead insects on by producing flowers that mimic the insect’s mating partner. Others have elaborate obstacle courses built into their flowers to ensure the orchid’s pollen is picked up. And some, like the fairy slipper, engage in deception, by suggesting through its bright colors and sweet smell that nectar awaits the visitor when, alas, there is none.

Orchids also enchant because while the orchid family contains the second highest number of species of flowering plants in the world (most of which are found in the tropics), orchids are paradoxically more often rare and endangered than any other flower. One such potentially endangered species, which is in bloom right now in a few boggy pockets in the midvalley, is the yellow lady’s slipper, Cypripedium calceolus.

Considered by some scientists to belong outside the orchid family owing to technical differences like its number of functioning stamens, the decidedly orchid-like lady’s slipper has a large, inflated yellow lip adorned with wispy purplish petals, and can be hard to spot amongst its sheaths of green leaves. One good place to see it, with a little guidance from the staff, is at Rock Bottom Ranch, where good stewards are helping secure the lady’s slipper’s future. Don’t delay, though, for while these magical orchids will likely be here again next year, certain annual events, like the fall colors, just shouldn’t be missed.

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