Orchids are a gateway to botanical obsession. People who are otherwise uninterested in nature are often, inexplicably drawn to orchids, in all their bizarre forms. Orchids captured my attention at a young age, when my interest in birds and dinosaurs shifted quickly to plants after meeting and growing my very first potted tropical orchid.
I’ve heard similar stories, from orchids lovers, fern aficionados and self-proclaimed “sedge heads”. After connecting with a plant, you’re never quite the same, and people will spend a lot of energy feeding these botanical obsessions.
This spring I was lucky enough to return to the Bruce Peninsula, the Orchid Capitol of Ontario, though it seemed like the whole world was there to do exactly what I was there to do— photograph the rare Calypso bulbosa.
Nowhere else does eco-tourism feel so much like spiritual worship than where you’re at the site of a rare orchid in bloom. A lineup forms, the hemlock trees serving as bouncers, as small groups ascend and kneel below the diminutive blossom of Calypso.
The Calypso is a liar. In addition to luring people to them, they also lure pollinators to them. Although the bottom lip appears to be covered in pollen and dripping with nectar, this orchid does not offer a reward, and so relies on the naivety of newly emerged spring bees, who have net yet been tricked by the Calypso flower.
Calypso bulbosa grow on Flower Pot Island in amongst large swathes of blooming Polygala paucifolia. There is no mistaking the fact that the flowers of Polygala resemble those of the Calypso, but with a real nectar reward for visiting pollinators. You’d expect these plants would be too similar to coexist, and that they would compete for pollinators. However, since pollination services are not finite resources, it is possible that the Polygala is actually facilitating pollination in Calypso. Since the more abundant Polygala puts on a more attractive show of flowers, and actually offers a reward, it is likely that Calypso is trying to piggy-back off of the attractive qualities of Polygala, without having to offer the same reward to its pollinator. Other rare plants are known to depend on nearby common plants to ensure adequate pollination. Plants like Polygala are often referred to as “magnet species” in this situation.
The orchid family is the second largest flowering plant family, with well over 20, 000 described species around. Forty-eight of them call the Bruce Peninsula home. Most orchids that are popular with home gardeners are tropical and often epiphytic (growing above the ground, usually on large trees or mossy rocks), but all of the orchids native to Ontario are terrestrial and often quite small.
Although we get a lot of requests for orchids, they are very tricky to grow from seed and do not transplant well. For those of you who cannot live without seeing one, I would suggest taking a trip up to Tobermory to connect with these special plants in their natural habitat. Other species to spot in the spring include the Rams Head Orchid (Cyprepedium arietinum), Heart Leaved Tway Blade (Listera cordata), Yellow Coral-Root (Corallorhiza triffida), Striped Coral Root (Corallorhiza striata), North Green Orchid (Platanthera aquilonis) and Hookers Orchid (Platanthera hookeri). Orchids cannot tolerate soil compaction, so remember to keep your distance and step softly.