Naturespeak 1036 

Orchids in the Great White North?

By Tobin Seagel,

Whistler Naturalist Society

Several years ago, I had the good fortune to travel through Southeast Asia. I was excited to lay my own eyes on the cornucopia of colour and fascination that awaited me. The second I stepped off of the plane, the first thing to catch my eye was the beauty of the orchid. Sure, I had seen them before at the zoo and in books, but to see them in their natural habitat was special.

Spending many nights in my share of guesthouses, I quickly discovered that a favorite pastime of backpackers is to compare their current locale with their homeland. Never one to miss an opportunity, I joined in the game. "We have nice flowers in Canada, but nothing compares to the orchids I’ve seen here!" I said ignorantly.

A couple of years later I found myself on the lower slopes of Powder Mountain on a spring morning staring at a little purple plant that I didn’t recall ever seeing before. In true MacGyver fashion, I pulled my handy plant identification book from my backpack and tried to solve the mystery.

"An orchid!? You’ve got to be kidding me."

The orchid family – Orchidaceae – is one of the two largest families of flowering plants, composed of approximately 23,000 species distributed around the world but primarily in the tropics. The tropical orchids are used extensively by the horticultural and florist trade, and natural vanilla extract is derived from the genus Vanilla .

The Pacific Northwest has 12 different orchids! They are modest orchids, not so showy like their tropical counterparts – truly Canadian. However, they can be just as intricate, complex and scented.

Fairyslipper ( Calypso bulbosa ), mountain ladyslipper ( Cypripedium montanum ), rattlesnake plantain ( Goodyera oblongifera ), and twayblade ( Lisatera sp.) are all examples of native orchids that you can find in the Whistler area.

Rattlesnake plantain is a common native orchid found on the forest floor from lowland to middle elevations. Early settlers gave this plant its common name because they felt the leaves resembled the markings on a snake. I remember the Latin name ( Goodyera ) because to me, the leaves look like the tread of a Goodyear tire. Stl’atl’imx children used to make balloons from the leaves by rubbing the top and bottom layers until they separated, and then blowing through the stem.

Of all the local orchids, my favourite is the coralroot ( Corallorhiza sp.) characterized by its purple stem up to 50cm tall. These are saprophytic orchids, meaning they get their food from decaying organic matter in the soil, rather than through photosynthesis in the leaves. In fact, the leaves are reduced to thin, semi-transparent sheaths that are barely noticeable. Since they don’t photosynthesize, they aren’t even green.

So next time you find yourself dreaming of a tropical getaway, grab the sunscreen and a bottle of Sangria and go play in the woods.

Upcoming Events

Monthly Bird Count- Saturday, Sept. 6, 7 a.m. Meet at the end of Lorimer Road at the entrance to the Catholic Church. Join local experts as they keep a running count on local bird species. Everyone welcome.

Au Natural! Nature Exposed Photo Showdown! Friday, Sept. 26 at Millennium Place. Local photographers show off their talents showcasing regional natural beauty. For more information contact Kathryn Shepherd at 604-935-8472 or Veronica Woodruff at

For more information on the Whistler Naturalist Society, contact Veronica Woodruff at


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