06 January 2010

A Slipper Fit For A Goddess

One of the plants that I had hoped to see while in Colorado was Fairy Slipper (Calypso bulbosa). Unfortunately, this orchid typically flowers from April to July (Guennel 2004), and we were within its geographical range in mid-July. On one occasion on our trip, we saw a plant that had finished flowering and fruiting; on another couple of occasions, we saw sterile plants. I was beginning to think that we were out of luck, until near the end of our trip, on 18 July 2009, at Rocky Mountain National Park.

After a picnic near a quiet stream for lunch, Eric, Lisa, Julia, Lindsay and I headed back to the car. If you know me at all, you know that I can't simply walk back to the vehicle along the same trail I walked in without at least checking out a bit more of the surroundings; this is especially true in a place I've never been. True to character, I swung through a montane woods while the rest of our group stayed along the trail back to the car. After seeing several exciting plants characteristic of dark, montane forest (that I will post about at a later date), I found my target, a late flowering (but past its prime) Fairy Slipper (be sure to check out the photos at Southwest Colorado Wildflowers to see what the plant looks like when the flowers are fresh).


Eric joined me just about the time that I found this plant, and the two of us proceeded to take numerous photos. I had no idea how difficult it was to keep a 2-year old happy while her dad and his friend were off botanizing. Shortly after I found the plant, I began hearing a car horn, which continued on and off until we got back to the car and found out that Julia was apparently ready to go. We couldn't pass up the opportunity to take photos, though.

As seen in two of these photographs, Fairy Slipper has a solitary leaf at the base of the plant. This leaf emerges in the fall, overwinters under the snow (Strickler 1988), and withers soon after the plant flowers (Wells et al. 1999).


Calypso, as it is also known, is found at a range of elevations in Colorado, from the Foothills to the Subalpine (6,000' to 11,500' above sea level), in bogs and mossy forests and near springs and seeps (Guennel 2004). Closer to home around the Great Lakes, this orchid can be found in dry sand on dunes, in northern coniferous forests, in swamps and bogs, and on alvars (Wells et al. 1999; Case 1987). Its North American distribution includes much of Canada and the northern Unites States, as well as a band along the Rocky Mountains south to Arizona and New Mexico (NatureServe 2009). Globally, this species is circumboreal in distribution, meaning that it is found in northern climates around the world (Fernald 1950).


Calypso was named after the beautiful sea nymph in Homer's Odyssey (Wells et al. 1999). Many references attest to the beauty of the flowers of this plant. Upon seeing it, Hilde Guennel apparently exclaimed "Oh my God! That's the most beautiful thing I've ever seen!" (Guennel 2004). Unfortunately, its beauty and intrigue has led to its demise and the degradation of its habitat in some places, as habitat has been trampled and plants have been unnecessarily collected (Case 1987).


Case, F.W. Jr. (1987). Orchids of the Western Great Lakes Region. Bloomfield Hills, Michigan: Cranbrook Institute of Science.

Fernald, M.L. (1950). Gray's Manual of Botany, Eighth (Centennial) Edition. American Book Company.

Guennel, G.K. (2004). Guide to Colorado Wildflowers, Volume 2: Mountains. Englewood, Colorado: Westcliffe Publishers.

NatureServe. (2009). NatureServe Explorer: An online encyclopedia of life [web application]. Version 7.1. NatureServe, Arlington, Virginia. Available http://www.natureserve.org/explorer. (Accessed: January 6, 2010 ).

Strickler, D. (1988). Forest Wildflowers: Showy Wildflowers of the Woods, Mountains and Forests of the Northern Rocky Mountain States. Columbia Falls, Montana: The Flower Press.

Wells, J.R., F.W. Case Jr., & T.L. Mellichamp. (1999). Wildflowers of the Western Great Lakes Region. Bloomfield Hills, Michigan: Cranbrook Institute of Science.

6 comments:

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Bucko (a.k.a., Ken) said...

What a unique looking plant, especially when in full bloom. The single leaf is a trip :o)

Ted C. MacRae said...

I've seen photos of this species in peak bloom - it is really spectacular. Even your past prime photos are definitely photo-worthy.

Scott said...

Thanks Ted. Hopefully I have the opportunity to see it in full bloom at some point, too.

ben said...

It is blooming very nicely in RMNP right now.

Scott Namestnik said...

Yeah, you caught it at peak... we were a bit late for this species.

Anyone reading these comments should be sure to check out Ben's photos at http://joyben.blogspot.com/2010/06/calypso-bulbosa.html.