Idaho Mountain Wildflowers
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Orchid Family, Orchidaceae

The word “orchid” is derived from the Latin word orchis, a term used by Pliny the Elder (23-79 A.D.) in his encyclopedic Natural History, and ultimately from a similar Greek word meaning “testicle” from the shape of the pseudobulb found in many orchid plants. The family consists of 790 genera and some 18,500 species. Given such numbers, it is surprising that the family’s only food use is the flavoring derived from Mexican Vanilla species. The family’s economic importance is derived almost completely from cultivation of its spectacular flowers. Some of its members have migrated from warm climates s to colder environments while evolving progressively less showy flowers. Orchids grow as far north as Siberia, Iceland, Greenland and throughout North America. Many tropical orchids are epiphytic (i.e., live on other plants), whereas those in temperate zones are mostly terrestrial. Orchids are usually perennials that spread by underground stems (“rhizomes”), as well as by tiny wind-sown seeds—their seeds are the smallest found in any plant. Species belonging to nine genera occur in Idaho; a few are quite showy. Our wild orchids should never be picked. Their growth requirements are highly selective and often depend on the presence of specific fungal symbionts; they will not survive transplantation.

Fairy-slipper, Calypso bulbosa (L.) Oakes var. occidentalis (Holz.) B. Boivin (left) is one of the most colorful of our orchids. It is not a rare plant, but it is elusive, for it grows amid the moist litter of evergreen forests where it blooms in late spring. So far as we are aware, it is not found south of the Clearwater River drainage in Idaho. Lewis and Clark—most likelyMeriwether Lewis—discovered this then new-to-science plant blooming along the Lolo Trail and collected one as a specimen on June 16, 1806. The plant shown here was photographed in the DeVoto Grove, west of the Lolo Pass, close to where the explorers found theirs. Another variety, var. americana (R. Br.) Luer occurs (rarely) in Idaho.

Mountain lady’s-slipper, Cypripedium montanum Douglas ex Lindl. (right) bears flowers that are smaller and more numerous than those of other species of Cypripedium; still, with its showy white blooms it, too, is an elegant plant. Two other lady’s slippers are native to Idaho. The one shown here is the most common of the three—finding one will make a hiker’s day. Meriwether Lewis encountered the mountain lady’s-slipper on the Lolo Trail and again at Traveler’s Rest, near today’s Missoula, Montana on July 1, 1806. We do not know whether he gathered a specimen; if so, it did not survive the homeward journey.

Spotted coral-root, Corallorhiza maculata (Raf.) Raf. var. occidentalis (Lindl.) Ames (left, right). Coral roots are saprophytes. The flowers shown here— magnified considerably—are those of a fairly common species that grows in open shade of forests where the plant's slender, reddish-brown stems stand out. The flowers with their spotted white lips are striking, but you will need a hand lens to see them well, true of many of our native orchids. Another variety, var. maculata, also occurs in Idaho. It is a similar plant, with a narrower flower lip. Another, very similar species, Corallorhiza striata Lindl. with striped flowers, is also found in Idaho

Yellow coral-root, Corallorhiza trifida Châtelaine (left, right). Coral-roots—named for the bright red color of their root systems—lack chlorophyll. Their “leaves” are represented by sheathing bracts seen on the lower part of the stems. The color of coral-roots ranges from the reddish-brown of the spotted coral-root shown above, to the yellowish color of this plant. This plant's species name, trifida, means three-lobed, describing the irregular end of the flower’s lip. This plant, like the spotted coral root, is widely distributed all across northern North America.

Western rattlesnake plantain, Goodyera oblongifolia Raf. (left, right) catches the eye only because its several, deep-green, basal leaves are mottled with a central white stripe; it is otherwise a plain little plant. The name “rattlesnake plantain,” comes from a fancied resemblance of the leaves’ markings to those of rattlesnakes. Small white flowers (greatly magnified here) form a loose cluster at the top of the plant's stem; then, later in the summer one sees only the basal leaves and a dried stem. Interestingly, because the pedicels (stemlets) are twisted, the plant’s flowers are upside-down (“resupinate”) and a sepal fused with two petals forms a “hood.” Look for this little orchid in shaded woods. The generic name Goodyera honors English botanist, John Goodyer (1592-1664).

White bog orchid, Platanthera dilatata, (Pursh) Lindl. ex L. C. Beck var. dilatata (left, right) has several names: “rein orchid,” (for the strap-like lower lip), “boreal orchid,”  and “habenaria” (a former generic name). There are several varieties, distinguished by slight differences; the one shown here is the most common variety. It is a meadow plant and our most common orchid, often found growing above treeline. Its flowers, like those of Goodyera, are resupinate. A ventral lip, two sepals extending laterally, and a “hood” made up of a dorsal sepal and petals are family characteristics (shown here greatly magnified). A prominent downward-curving spur confirms the species’ identification. The name Platanthera, from the Greek, means “wide (or flat) anther”; dilatata, from the Latin means “broad” or “wide,” apparently referring to the lip’s wide base.

Slender bog orchid, Platanthera stricta Lindl. (left, right). The slender bog orchid (formerly Habenaria saccata Greene), while not uncommon, is less often encountered than the plant shown above. As its former classification saccata suggests, it is characterized by a swollen, sac-like “scrotiform” spur that hangs down behind the flower, an identifying characteristic. The species name, stricta, means “straight.” Lindley, who described the plant, apparently used stricta   to refer to the narrow flower cluster.

White-lip  (or Alaska) rein-orchid, Piperia unalascensis  (Spreng.) Rydb. (left, right). The Alaska rein-orchid was until recently classified as a Habenaria (Platanthera). Although similar to habenarias, it is different enough to classify it as originally published, in genus Piperia. The plant is notable for its height--it is among the tallest of our orchids.. Its spike-like stem, arising from a rosette of two or more parallel veined leaves, is studded along its upper part by tiny white flowers that  somewhat resemble the plants in genus Platanthera. Our plant's height and overall appearance make identification easy. The generic name, Piperia, honors America botanist Charles Vancouver Piper (1867-1926).

Hooded ladies’-tresses, Spiranthes romanzoffiana Cham. (left, right) are found all across the North American continent and even in the British Isles. In our area the plant grows to treeline and higher. Its stemless flowers are borne on a stout spike-like stem. Each flower is offset a few degrees from the one below, forming the spiral that gives the plant its generic name. The petals (except for the ventral lip) join to form a hood. Spiranthes is derived from two Greek words, speira meaning “coil” or “spiral” and anthos for “flower.” The species name honors Nicolai von Romanzov (1734-1826), the Grand Chancellor of the Russian Empire, who sponsored—and funded—the around-the-world expedition led by explorer Otto von Kotzebue (1787-1846) in the years 1815-1818.

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