Thursday, June 05, 2008

Orchids on Mount Talbert

One of the curious facts about our Pacific Northwest native plants is that high mountain plants are often better known that lowland natives. With most low elevation land in private ownership, access is somewhat restricted in comparison with the bulk of the Cascade Mountain Range, much of which (especially high elevations) are in Federal ownership and fully open to the public.

Thats what gives an area like Mount Talbert such value. Though hardly pristine, this ancient volcano saw most of its human disturbances early on, before the blights of Himalayan blackberries, ivy and broom became so widespread. Logging was done mostly more than 75 years ago. Luckily what has been growing back since then is by and large native and natural.

Among the most delicate native plants are the orchids. Their roots are confined to the forest duff, and they disappear when this superficial layer is disturbed. An event like fire whether natural or set to burn logging slash will destroy it.

The fact that I've located two kinds of orchids on Mount Talbert is likely due to the fact that early loggers were not required to burn slash, and the lesser disturbance helped retain the native ecosystem there much more that would happen nowadays. And the worse scourge of blackberries and Scotch broom did not occur much that far back.

The first orchid I discovered on Mount Talbert is the evergreen rattlesnake plantain (Goodyera oblongifolia). Pale veins on the deep green leaves make this one easy to identify. Only three plants were growing in a small group. The flowers are small and greenish, opening in summertime.

The second is much showier in flower. The fairy slipper (Calypso bulbosa) is shaped much like a corsage orchid from the florist. This diminutive plant is a bright pink miniature. Growing erect 4 to 8 inches (20 cm) tall, the plant grows but a single leaf each fall, which winters over, but withers the following summer. This is an example of summer dormancy, of which our climate has many.

Fairies slipper orchid

The showy, large Lady's-slipper orchid (Cypripedium montanum) is our most conspicuous orchid at up to 2 feet. Unfortunately it is mostly confined to east of the Cascades. Yet it has been spotted to the west ("rarely w Cas" states the authoritative Flora of the Pacific Northwest). Our other 11 genera of orchids are all mountain species, but an eye should be kept out for the possibility that a few survive in preserves like Mount Talbert.


Cathy Crandall said...

Having just started learning wildflowers in the past few years, I was excited to find Calypso on a hike near Anacortes, WA. Didn't know what it was, but finally found it in a field guide. I was then pleased to find one just a short time after in the Tualatin Hills Nature Park in Beaverton. Hopefully, we are doing something write in preserving these areas so that these beauties can be enjoyed by all!

Bryon said...

Be sure to look for this at higher elevations as well. Its not a high elevation plant, but does show up at middle elevations - perhaps up to 3,000 feet (920 meters) here in Northern Oregon.