Calypso Orchids: February’s Treasure

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:



  1. Mary Chapman said,

    February 26, 2010 at 2:06 am

    While walking around Bon Tempe today, I searched in vain for an orchid. We had seen one a couple weeks ago at Lagunitas. Thank you for the beautiful photos (from your i-phone!!).

    • billnoble said,

      February 26, 2010 at 2:14 am

      Wow! Mary, I think that’s the fastest comment on a post I’ve ever experienced — I was still clicking back and forth tweaking it! And, yeah, there are some Calypsos on the south side of Bon Tempe. I don’t find them every year, and can’t quite seem to remember the exact location either. But looking hard for things in the woods is never wasted effort. 😉

  2. Irene Brady said,

    February 26, 2010 at 3:54 am

    What treasures! I’ve only seen a couple, way back in the mountains around Crater Lake, and not places I’ve ever managed to return to……

    • billnoble said,

      February 26, 2010 at 4:05 am

      Hi, Renie,

      This was one of those times I should have brought a real camera. Despite the perfect rainy-day light, the highlights on almost all the flowers in these shots are blown out to white. It’s a shame — they’re soooo beautiful.

  3. February 26, 2010 at 5:41 pm

    Calypso bulbosa – Fairy Slipper photo taken in June of 2004 at Fort Smith Northwest Territories Canada 60°00’N, 111°58′ W
    Calypso belbosa - Fairy Slipper

    • billnoble said,

      February 26, 2010 at 5:50 pm

      Lovely — and a perfect testament to both Calypso’s wide geographic spread and its variation: note how white-lipped your flowers are compared to our Californian ones. Thanks for sharing the picture. And at least equal thanks for access to your whole library of nature photos. looks to be some fine work!

  4. jennie orvino said,

    February 26, 2010 at 7:51 pm

    Seeing and reading about these special orchids was like getting a sweetheart bouquet at the end of a long work week. Thank you, dear Bill. I’ll be back to read a lot more of what I’ve missed.

    • billnoble said,

      February 26, 2010 at 10:00 pm

      Hey, Jennie,

      If I made the appropriate puppy eyes, would you consider coming back and doing a guest post (like Bill Keener’s about the porpoises) with a couple of poems you think would fit with the general flavor of the blog and could maybe even serve as promotion for your new book?

  5. richwolf said,

    June 22, 2010 at 6:30 am

    Thanks for your bog and the great photos of these orchids. I just discovered this little beauty in Boulder Colorado. Your readers might be interested in my post at

    • Bill Noble said,

      June 28, 2010 at 6:13 pm

      Rich — Your “mug shot” of a Colorado calypso is just plain magnificent! I’m delighted you discovered me over here in California. May I link to your blog?

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