What Makes Orchids So Special

We tend to think of orchids as exotic rainforest flowers that we carefully nurture as a houseplant. There are, however, over 25,000 species of orchids found on every continent except for Antarctica. While the densest orchid populations are in tropical areas of South America and Southeast Asia, there are dozens of different species found in Western Canada. They won’t be as easy to find as more common native plants, but the hunt is part of the enjoyment.

All of Canada’s orchids grow in soil. They have bilaterally symmetrical flowers (if you were to cut them down the middle vertically, the two halves would be identical). The 3 petals and 3 sepals often appear identical. The lower petal forms the orchid’s lip which is where pollinators land. In some species, it resembles a slipper-like pouch.

Orchid seeds are very small and lack food reserves. As a result, orchids rely on fungi in the soil to germinate and grow: “Fungal filaments or hyphae invade the cells of the tiny embryo as the seed lies in the ground and coil and branch inside them to form dense balls which are digested for food by the developing plant.”

If you find an orchid, the best way to preserve it is with a photograph. Orchids rarely survive transplanting as they lack the necessary fungi and rich organic matter, and picking the flowers will prevent orchids from reproducing. Without care and respect, orchids may disappear as so much of their natural habitat has already been destroyed.

Where To Look for Native Orchids

Orchids can be found in many different habitats, from bogs and wetlands to forests and grasslands. They grow slowly and are very sensitive to disturbance so are most likely to be found in wilder natural areas.

The following online guides may be of assistance in locating and identifying native orchids.

The Orchids of British Columbia, E-Flora BC (habitat and status information as well as photographs)

Orchids of Lakeland, Lakeland Provincial Park/Provincial Recreation Area, near Lac La Biche, Alberta (sketch, description, and background information)

Marl Pond Trail Guide, Wagner Natural Area near Edmonton (Yellow Lady’s Slipper is relatively abundant and flower from early- to mid-June)

Orchids, Cypress Hills Interprovincial Park (at least 18 species and 2 varieties of orchids have been reported in the park)

Brokenhead Wetland Ecological Reserve, Manitoba (28 of Manitoba’s 36 native orchids can be found in the wetland)

Manitoba Orchids, Native Orchid Conservation Inc. (photo, habitat, and flowering period)

Additional Locations

We were asked for some additional locations. Here’s what we found (April 26, 2022):

Prairie Orchid Trail, Weston Family Tallgrass Prairie Interpretive Centre, MB (Western Prairie White-fringed orchid)

Fen Trail, Duck Mountain Provincial Park, SK

MacDowall Bog, SK (Special Places, Nature Prince Albert)

Pine Cree Regional Park, SK (EcoFriendly Sask)

Prince Albert National Park, SK (The Flora of Prince Albert National Park)

Liard River Hot Springs Provincial Park, BC (14 species)

Little Qualicum Falls Provincial Park, BC (Island Nature)

Mount Robson Provincial Park, BC (Native Orchids of the Pacific Northwest)

Tip: Marshes and calcareous fens are prime habitat for some orchids. We also recommend consulting with provincial nature and native plant associations who can provide you with a wealth of information and resources.

A Few Common Varieties

Outlined below are a few of the orchids you may find in Western Canada. Flowering periods will depend on location and variety; check local resource materials for further information.

Bog: As the name implies, Bog orchids can be found in wet or marshy areas and there are a number of different varieties. Most of them have a tall spike with many small flowers. The Northern Green is common in most parts of Alberta, including the Alberta side of Cypress Hills Interprovincial Park.

Calypso (Fairy Slipper): The Calypso orchid can be found in forested areas across Canada and in the northern United States. There is a single leaf at the base of the plant and it produces one or two dainty slipper-like flowers. The petals are pink or purple, while the pouch has purple streaks and a patch of yellow hairs on the lip.

Western Fairy Slipper orchid

Coralroot: Coralroots are unusual as they lack green leaves and roots. Instead, they have an underground stem that obtains nutrients from dead organic matter in the soil. Spotted Coralroot can be found in forested areas across Canada’s four western provinces. It has deep red petals and a white lip spotted with purple. Striped Coralroot grows in clumps and features 15-25 pink flowers with purple stripes on a purple stem.

Rattlesnake Plantain: Rattlesnake Plantain owes its name to its dark green leaves with prominent white markings similar to those on a snake. The small, greenish-white flowers form on one side of a sticky, hairy spike. Insects are attracted by their perfume.

Sparrow’s Egg Lady’s Slipper: Sparrow’s Egg Lady’s Slipper is a short plant with one or two flowers on a short, leafy stem. The flowers are white with purple spots on the inside of a large pouch. It’s found in moist woodland areas as well as along streams and lakes. The plant is self-pollinating. As it matures, the male anthers come in contact with the female stigma. The seed capsules contain from 10-15,000 seeds.

Yellow Lady’s Slipper: Yellow Lady’s Slipper flowers have a bright yellow pouch with greenish-yellow, purple-veined petals and sepals that are often twisted. A triangle-shaped flap directs bees into the pouch. The bees are then directed towards the pollen and the exit. If the bee is too large, it will be trapped and unable to escape. If it’s too small, it won’t pick up the pollen. Even if it is successful, there is no reward as there is no nectar and the pollen is unavailable.

Further Information

Orchids in Your Backyard, Canadian Orchid Congress

Orchids of Manitoba, a field guide

Vancouver Island’s Native Orchid Trilogy, Part I, Part II

Nature Companion, a free app/website introducing many of the plants and animals found in Canada’s four western provinces

Photo credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/apmckinlay/42722113341/ (Western Spotted Coralroot, top) https://www.flickr.com/photos/apmckinlay/28667450178/ (Western Fairy Slipper)

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