Plant of the day: calypso orchid

Peeking from the redwood duff, a calypso orchid. Calypso bulbosa, also known as a fairy slipper. This beautiful denizen of the woods is shy but not uncommon. It lifts its nodding head above the forest floor on a smooth purple stem, one or two green leaves lying flat at its base. And what a fearsome-looking flower!

The color can vary from pale pink to deep rose, but around here they are usually lilac-colored. A spikey crown flares upward like a punk-rocker halo. This crown is composed of petals, sepals and bracts all indistinguishable. Beneath, a lilac lobe juts forward, an awning over the burgandy-spotted pouch below. Tucked under the awning are anthers, which are designed to adhere to detach and stick to the backs of foraging insects. It turns out that Calypso orchids are tricksters – their shape suggests to passing insects that they may have nectar, but in fact, they don’t. Yet they depend entirely on this trick for pollination!

A Calypso orchid may live for up to five years (though usually less) and it dies back to its underground corm, or root-like structure, each summer. A new leaf is produced in the fall, and it flowers in the spring. It has a tremendously wide range. You can find it across western and northern United States, Canada, Japan and northern Europe.

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