the Phantom Orchid appeals to off trail dog mentality

Return of the Phantom Orchid

(Guest post from Stewart Wechsler)

May 21, 2016
While Lincoln Park is blessed to have a number of indigenous plants that survive nowhere else in Seattle, there is one of these that stands out like no other, as both beautiful and the most unique and special. It is the Phantom Orchid – Cephalanthera austiniae (in older references as Eburophyton austiniae). This plant has no leaves and no chlorophyll, and it has nothing visible above ground when it is not flowering or setting seed. With no leaves and chlorophyll, you ask how does it grow? It is fully dependent on the fungus underground that it is attached to, while the fungus is dependent on the tree roots that it is attached to. So if anyone would get the bad idea that they might want this beautiful and unique flower in their garden, they should know that if it is dug up, it is killed, because the essential 3 way connection between the orchid, the fungus and the tree is broken. Not only is there nothing visible above ground when it isn’t bloom and seed time, they don’t bloom every year, and the number of flower stalks that come up in any year they do bloom is quite variable. Phantom Orchids have been recorded not blooming for up to 17 years then blooming again. At Lincoln Park the first place I found one flower stalk, about 10 years ago, it sent up another stalk for each of the next 2 years, but since then I haven’t seen any flowers at that spot. While I suspect that orchid is dead, each year I keep checking, because I can’t know. No wonder these pale flower stalks, with flowers that have no more pigment than a yellow lower lip, that appear, then disappear, are called “Phantom” Orchids.
The time I first found a Phantom Orchid in Lincoln Park, there had only been one University of Washington herbarium record of this species for King County. It was one collected in 1937, by Sister Mary Milburge. Where? ­ In Lincoln Park! (Since then a second Phantom Orchid was collected in King County in the Preston area.) Due to its rarity statewide, the Phantom Orchid is on the state’s rare and protected plant list.
July 4, 2015
The biggest reason to tell people about these orchids, in spite of some risk that some rudely inconsiderate person might try digging one up, is to use the problem they have had to teach people about a problem for the park’s whole natural community. Every year that these orchids do bloom, a number of the flower stalks are knocked down before they can set seed. It seems most likely this is from the heavy traffic in the park of off trail, off leash and long leash dogs, with claws designed for digging, and who dig the forest floor and its vegetation with every leap, every pull, and sometimes just for fun. Last year we had 5 orchid stalks come up, but 3 were trampled before they could exchange pollen with another orchid and set seed. If our remaining Phantom Orchids don’t produce seed before they die, Lincoln Park will have no more Phantom Orchids. So before you allow your dog to run free in this most special remaining piece of nature left in Seattle, consider the dilemma of our Phantom Orchids struggling to have sex and babies before they die!
­Stewart Wechsler (pictures by Mark Ahlness)

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