Beginning in mid to late February each year, this tiny, vanilla-scented beauty makes an all-too-brief appearance in our forests. I’ve made pilgrimage for over twenty years to my favorite Calypso ‘grove,’ hidden away on steep, trailless land above San Geronimo. In most years, I suspect there are 150 to 200 plants here, with as many as 40 or 50 in bloom at once.
Yesterday, in delightfully damp weather, we found just eight. Notice the rain drips on most of the flowers.
Despite its intricate flower, each plant is just 5 or 6 inches high, with a single ribbed leaf laid flat on the duff. Like many orchids, it’s a trickster: it has elaborate fake nectaries, but no nectar. It specializes in the victimization of ignorant, newly hatched bumblebees, who fumble their way through a few bright, foodless Calypsos, pollinating them, before learning better.
Calypsos are a single worldwide species in their own genus. They’re circumpolar, found in undisturbed and usually old forest from California and Arizona to Newfoundland in the New World, and from Scandinavia to Japan in the Old, but are nowhere abundant. They’re extremely vulnerable to habitat disturbance, and they’re part of the vast illegal international trade in orchids. The IUCN considers them “globally vulnerable to extinction.”
Do you remember the explosion of hunter-introduced feral pigs in Marin a few decades ago? Part of the motivation for the huge effort that was launched to eliminate them was that Calypsos were a favorite food.
These orchids, also called Fairy Slippers, grow from fingernail-size, bulblike corms, and a corm apparently lives only for about 5 years. Beginning in January, twin roots sprout from the corm, each root housing perhaps a dozen species of mycorrhizal fungi that mobilize mineral nutrients symbiotically for the plant (and probably, in the case of this orchid, also connect to the roots of trees and supply the flower directly with nutrients).
Don’t pick Calypsos: it almost invariably kills the plant. And don’t try to transplant them. Because they need their fungal symbionts to survive, you’re doomed to failure. Instead, find your own sacred grove. What could be better than a contemplative wander through the woods at the very greenest moment of the year?
Here and there, a few people are trying to learn to grow Fairy Slippers from their dust-sized seed. To explore that, here’s a fun link from the Pacific Northwest: http://calypsoorchid.com/