‘Fairy Slipper’, Calypso bulbosa is a perennial member of the Orchidaceae family. The delicate yellowish to brownish stem covered in membranous sheathing bracts extends from an oval bulb-like corm 10-15 cm to support a solitary purple highly specialized flower. Opening of the flower occurs earliest at low elevation in April to May and at moderate elevation in May to June. Flower formation is that typical of the Orchidaceae family where the petals are fused to form a lip and spurs. The lip is large and slipper-like (hence the common name), yellow to whitish in the background streaked and spotted with purple. Above the lip is a cluster of golden hairs and below is a spotted double spur. The calyx is composed of two narrow, pointed and twisted sepals arranged above the lip. The flower has a sweet fragrance that has been likened to the cultivated ‘Lily of the Valley.’ The fruit is a capsule that reaches up to 1 cm long. A single leaf egg-shaped, dark green leaf 3 to 6 cm long is borne from the corm and will persist through the winter to wither in the summer, during the time of flowering.
The habitat of C. bulbosa includes the deep shade and rich soil with leaf mould of the low to mid elevation moist forests. The stem will typically emerge from a thick deposit of decaying fir or hemlock needles. Moss beds are another common place forC. bulbosa to grow.
The distribution of this species is widespread throughout the Pacific Northwest Coast region. However, numbers are decreasing due to trampling and picking of the showy flowers. Since the corm is attached by delicate roots, when pulled the plant often dies due to these roots being broken. In addition to human disturbance and destruction, the corm growing close to the soil surface makes it susceptible to attacks by rodents and slugs.C. bulbosa must establish a relationship with a fungus that spreads throughout the soil in the woods and absorbs then modifies nutrients necessary for the fungus as well as the plant. Without this association the plant will not survive beyond the seedling stage. An additional complication to the survival of C. bulbosa is the limited range of insect pollinators adapted to this species, without which new generations will not be established.
The Haida people historically ate the corm, referring to it as ‘black cod grease’ due to the rich butter-like flavor. The corm was eaten in small quantities and girls ate the corm raw in order to enhance their bustline.
Hitchcock, C.L. and A. Cronquist (1994) Flora of the Pacific Northwest, University of Washington Press, Seattle and London.
E.N. Kozloff (1976) Plants and Animals of the Pacific Northwest. University of Washington Press, Seattle and London.
Pojar, J. and A. McKinnon (1994) Plants of the Pacific Northwest Coast. Lone Pine Publishing, Washington, Canada.