Chasing Orchids

Jasper Fitzhugh, July 26, 2012


My son Dylan runs down the Jasper House Interpretive Trail, stick in hand, at first oblivious to the hundreds of orchids that are just off the path. After a couple of sword fights with his buddy, us parents call a time out and point to the yellow lady slippers that suddenly surround us. They’re perfectly bloomed, and it’s easy to imagine that an army of fairies hides under the logs, waiting for us to pass so they can affix the boot-shaped flowers to their feet.

The trail is short – 300 metres from the parking lot to the lookout. But you could wander kilometres on other trails and not see the diversity of plants you see here. Today we will find four orchid species and a carnivorous plant.

The carnivorous plant is popular with the kids, and who can blame them? Its name is “common butterwort,” one of the few bug-eating plants in the Rockies. It’s not the delicate purple flower that does the dirty work, but the thick, yellowish-green leaves pressed against the ground that ooze the sticky death trap. Tiny insects are attracted by the syrupy scent, ensnared, and digested, providing the plant with much needed nitrogen and other nutrients missing from its surroundings. The kids leave the plant well fed, and the insect world a little less populated.

Common Butterwort. Photo: Niki Wilson.


Now that they have discovered bug-eating plants, Dylan and friends are keen to explore other things. We find a yellow lady slipper close to the trail, and observe the purple streaks and dots that line the inner pouch of the “shoe.” These are runways for the insects that pollinate them, beckoning them to the perfumed flower. However, only certain insects can pollinate a particular species of orchid.

Many orchid flowers have evolved together with specific bugs. Some flowers even resemble the female of the insect species, inviting the male to pseudo-copulate with the sole purpose of spreading the seeds to the stamen. Some orchids use stinky smells to attract bugs that like feces and garbage. Still other orchids have a hair trigger mechanism, shooting pollen at unsuspecting bees in search of nectar. To survive millions of years of evolution and shifting climates, orchids have had to be very creative in how they attract pollinators.

As we wind along the trail, we find two small clumps of sparrows egg lady slippers. The bladder-like sac, or front of the “boot” is the same size, shape and colour of a sparrow’s egg, and just as delicate. These flowers are so exquisite that you want to bring them home. However, picking this flower would only disappoint, as they wilt quickly. It would also result in the death of the plant, and its inability to regenerate the following year.

In general, the picking and selling of orchids has caused a decrease in orchid populations world wide, and is often cited as a conservation concern for many species. This is in part why the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) requires special permitting when importing and exporting domestic orchids. This verifies that the international trade of orchids does not threaten wild populations.

The lady slippers are not the only orchids along the path. Our plant detective work also reveals the round-leaved orchid. Unlike the lady-slippers, the round-leaved orchids have many small flowers on one stem. These are boreal forest orchids that range from Alaska to Greenland, and they favour sites that have persistent, cold ground water sources. This makes sense, given our proximity to the Athabasca River, and the chilly wet micro-climate at this site. The flowers have a white, tongue-like lip, speckled with dots of magenta and overall pink hues.

Round-leaved Orchid and Yellow Lady-Slipper. Photo: Niki Wilson.


As we reach the lookout that points to the old Jasper House settlement on the other side of the river, the kids abandon us for the viewing tower and a chance to climb up and down the railings. But my adult friends and I find a couple of less flashy bog orchids, eking out a living in the silty soil that is so often the overflow for the Athabasca only metres away. Like the round-leaved orchid, there are multiple flowers on one stem, although these are so small we almost missed the three small sepals – petal-like leaves that protect the flower when it’s in bloom. These sepals are characteristic of all orchids.

The kids are hungry, and it’s time to head home. As Dylan’s blood sugar drops, I am happy the trail is short. However, I am reluctant to leave. When I see plants like common butterwort and orchids at the height of their bloom, I know I’ve arrived at a fleeting moment in time, one that within days will end. There’s no guarantee they will be back in these numbers next year, and I am thankful to have been in the right place, at the right time.