Summit Outside: A beautiful flower

Dr. Joanne Stolen
Special to the Daily
Special to the Daily/Joanne Stolen

I was able to photograph a number of Calypso, also called fairy slipper orchids, nestled in the woods not far from the Buffalo Cabin Trail in Silverthorne. Their small, bright pink/purple blooms are not too difficult to spot.

Amazingly enough, there are quite a number of native or wild orchids in Colorado. They are found growing in the plains, along the foothills and high in the mountains, like here in Summit County.

Their flowers are as shapely and elegant as their tropical orchid cousins; but they are generally much smaller. These are not transplants from Europe, but are native plants. There are at least 11 species of orchid in Colorado.

The name orchid comes from the Greek an means “testicle,” because of the shape of the root. In Greek mythology Orchis, the son of a nymph and asatyr, drank too much during a festival of Bacchus and attempted to rape a priestess. For his insult, he was torn apart by the Bacchanalians. His father prayed for him to be restored, but the gods instead changed him into a flower.

The orchid flower is made up of three petals, and three sepals (outer whorl). One of the three petals is fashioned into what is called the lip. The lip acts as a platform, usually for a very particular pollinator. The pollinator could be a wasp, a bee, a butterfly, a spider, a bird or a moth, but each type of orchid is usually only pollinated by one pollinator. If its pollinator dies out as a species, so might the orchid.

The Calypso or fairy slipper orchid is one of Colorado’s most striking orchids. Though not common, it is also not rare. The species we have in Colorado is the Calypso bulbosa, named after the Greek nymph, Calypso. The mysterious and beautiful Calypso lived a solitary life in a luxurious cave on an island where she made life very sweet for the occasional sailor washed up on her shores.

This beautiful orchid prefers solitude and an undisturbed sanctuary. It has a sweet scent and is sometimes eaten by forest animals.

The northern forested regions around the globe provide a suitable microclimate for Calypso as they tend to favor sheltered areas on conifer forest floors. They are found beneath moist soils rich with decaying leaves and wood.

The Calypso orchid (Calypso bulbosa), also known as the fairy slipper or Venus’s slipper has a small pink, purple, pinkish-purple or red flower accented with a white lip, darker purple spots and yellow beard.

The area near the throat of the pouch is decorated with three ridges, bearing white or yellow hairs.

The specific species name, bulbosa, refers to the bulb-like corms (swollen underground plant stems that serve as storage organs). The corms have been used as a food source by North American native peoples and as a treatment for mild epilepsy. Fibrous roots are typically produced at the base of a single corm.

The Calypso orchid is very slender, has only one basal leaf, 1 to 2 inches long and although the plant does sometimes occur in patches by the dozens, it often grows singly and scattered.

Calypso orchids are typically 4-5 inches in height. The individual plants live no more than five years.

This orchid is pollinated by queen bumblebees. It relies on “pollination by deception,” as it attracts insects to anther-like yellow hairs at the entrance to the pouch and structures at the end of the pouch. The bees land on the lip of the flower and enter the pouch in search of food. Failing to find any, the bee exits the pouch, rubbing against the column overhanging the pouch opening as it does so. Pollen is deposited on the bee and is then transferred to the next flower it visits.

Following pollination, the orchid flower fades rapidly. By late summer, the capsule has ripened and the seeds are dispersed. The leaf withers and the plant becomes dormant until a new leaf will be produced and the cycle will commence again.

The Calypso orchid also sprouts from underground corms. The nodal region of the corm gives rise to a new shoot bud, which will become the new corm. The previous year’s corms remain in sequence, attached to the younger corms for 2-4 years. Corms are generally well protected, and the fairy slipper is probably well adapted to survive most fires.

Although the Calypso orchid’s distribution is wide, it is very susceptible to disturbance, and is therefore classified as threatened or endangered in several U. S. states, and in Sweden and Finland. It does not transplant because it depends on a specialized variety of fungi in order to germinate. Trampling and picking are the primary reasons for its rapid decline in some locations. Picking the flower inevitably kills the plant, because the delicate roots break at even the lightest pull on the stem. A decline in the frequency of fairy slipper, due largely to a growing illegal international trade, caused the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources to list fairy slipper as a species vulnerable to extinction on a global scale.

Take care when you see this beauty in the woods. Look, admire, but don’t touch or trample.

Dr. Joanne Stolen is retired from teaching microbiology at Rutgers University.

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