By Jule Gilfillan
We had a fun surprise on a recent Oregon Field Guide shoot with botanical taxonomist Erin Riggs when she spotted a rare beauty in the depths of the forest:
“It’s a Calypso bulbosa!” Erin exclaimed in the Latin and Greek-laced vocabulary she uses as fluently as the rest of us use English. Erin’s enthusiasm was understandable when we got close enough to see the lovely, delicate “Calypso orchid” in detail.
Also known as “Fairy Slipper” or “Venus’s Slipper,” these bright purplish orchids are native to Oregon, as well as Japan, Russia, and Scandinavia. All of the Pacific Northwest’s 40-some species of Orchidaceae are terrestrial, meaning they grow from the ground, and most are colored green or brown, which make them difficult to spot. But the Calypsos’ bright color makes the solitary flower stand out, even at just 10-14 centimeters in height.
Calypso orchids, which take their name from the Greek meaning “concealed,” typically start to appear in our forests and bogs in March or April. Orchidaceae is among the oldest and largest plant families on earth, with over 30,000 different species. Our Calypso orchid plants usually live about five years, though the striking blossoms are ephemeral, meaning they last only a short time. They have been classified as endangered in several U.S. states, as well as in Finland and Sweden, but can still be found in Oregon’s forests.
The corms (or tubers) from which these perennials sprout, are said to have a buttery taste and were used as a food source by Native Americans.
The Calypsos’ beauty make them tempting targets for collectors. But Erin reports that they rarely survive transport and they transplant poorly. She urges people to enjoy them in situ.