Highlight of the Season in Bloom!

Last year a mystery-plant put out two leaves in April and continued to be leafy while the other spring flowers bloomed and went to seed. While the dark leaves grew a little, nothing much was visibly going on. It seemed this plant must be spending all this time gathering resources to send up a bloom that takes an enormous amount of energy to produce – another lily? (They use the stored carbohydrates in their bulbs to flower, so they require bulbs of a certain age and size before managing the showy blossoms.)

Then in mid-June a flower stalk began to grow. Finally, in mid-July, full bloom: a rein orchid!

Here is the three-month progression:

leaves of Piperia elegans - late April

P. elegans bud in June

P.elegans in bud - thinking about blooming

P. elegans late June

A group of P. elegans scattered across forest floor

P. elegans - full bloom 18-24 inches tall

P. elegans flower - 3 sepals, two upright green-striped petals and a third (lip) below

After much consultation with field guides, especially P.M. Brown’s Wild Orchids of the Pacific Northwest and Canadian Rockies I am pretty sure we have several healthy patches of the rein orchid Piperia elegans (elegant piperia). The “rein” part of the name refers to supposedly strap-shaped petals which resemble bridle reins. Or perhaps the long spur – note how it curves down along the stem. It’s much longer than the lowest petal or “lip” on the blossom.

individual blossoms with spider P. elegans

P. elegans

Although Brown states that several species from the same genus may grow together in “genus communities”, so far I have only found this one. They exude a light, sweet fragrance after sundown. Last year we trekked up the hill in the dark to see if we could find any night-flying pollinators – perhaps a large unusual moth – but were not rewarded with much of anything. Such is the hunt for pollinators; they can be elusive. The fragrance was worth it, however. There may be some beautiful exotic night-flyer that arrives in the wee hours.

Here is a closeup of the blossoms, and yet another flower spider (i.d. to follow).

These unique and sometimes mystifying plants can afford this extravagantly long lead-up to production of truly robust 1-1/2 to 2 foot tall blooms because like all orchids, they form associations with a particular fungus or fungi, from which they derive large amounts of extra energy and nutrients. This is one reason they don’t survive transplanting – ever. They choose the fungi and the spot where they wish to grow, and that’s pretty much it. Except for a few experts who are able to culture the seeds and grow them, we can enjoy the thrill of finding wild Pacific Northwest orchids and knowing that we are witnessing something that cannot be reproduced just anywhere. This genus is only found in North America, and after some botanical splitting and probably more to follow according to Brown, 5 of the ten species are found in the Pacific NW.

This year I am planning to collect some of the seed capsules and place them in a few areas to see if they will take up residence just a little ways from where they are now. The seeds are like dust, and have no food storage. They must form an association or be infected with a fungus in order to even germinate, after which they rely on the fungus to get going and continue to develop.

Very cool!

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