Saturday, May 21, 2016

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
www.stewardshipadventures.com

(pictures by Mark Ahlness)

12 comments:

  1. If any of you go to the WTU (UW) herbarium website, scroll down to the bottom of the page to see a large selection of photos. http://biology.burke.washington.edu/herbarium/imagecollection.php?Genus=Cephalanthera&Species=austiniae

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  2. Today, by simply taking a slightly different route through the park than I usually take, I was pleased to find one more spot where the Phantom Orchid lives in Lincoln Park. There are 3 flower stalks, and I would guess that they all come from one plant. With most of the plant being some root-like structure underground, it can be hard to tell. That makes 6 spots where they have been found in the park, in addition to one spot in the same general wooded area, but outside the park boundaries.

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  3. This year's carnage has begun! Today, when I went to see the new group of orchids I had found there to see if any flowers were open enough to try my planned cross-pollinating flowers from different patches with a toothpick, of the 3 flower stalks I had found there there were now 2 whole ones and one that had been broken off, so that only one flower at the bottom of the group of maybe 12 was left, with 2 pieces of stalk and some separate flowers lying on the ground, breathing their last breaths as they die.

    The off-leash / long-leash, off trail dogs have struck again! If the dog owners that let their dogs run free in the park had a neighbor whose delicate flower garden was the love of her life, would they let their dog run through her yard and trample her flowers? These dog owners don't understand that this park is everyone's precious and delicate flower garden, and that letting their dogs trash the flowers of everyone's flower garden is many times worse than letting their dog trash just one flower garden of one neighbor.

    Today I also discovered one more stalk than I had first noticed, broken off near the base of the stalk. Had this one been picked by a curious and inconsiderate park using human? Can we use this loss to teach others about the need to keep dogs on a short leash and the need to leave special, uncommon natural objects alone, both for others to enjoy, and to serve their natural function?

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  4. Stewart, I must have been there shortly after you were. So sad. I took a picture: https://flic.kr/p/HuQsgC

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  5. Thanks Mark for getting the picture. I hope we can use it to illustrate why people might want to keep their dogs on the trails!

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  6. I've now placed some fallen branches, that hopefully look more or less like they fell in their spot naturally, to discourage dog traffic through that Phantom Orchid patch.

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  7. I am pleased to announce that I found one more Phantom Orchid in Lincoln Park! I have to wonder whether it is a newer plant, and if not, how many of the last 16 years it has bloomed, because it is in a spot a pass regularly. Lawn mowers may have removed its flower stalks in the past. Now we will need to protect it from the lawnmowers and the rampage of wild dogs.

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  8. First the good news: I was able to get branches around the newly discovered orchid to reduce the odds of trampling by dogs, people or lawnmowers. Then I pulled out my toothpick and started my planned artificial insemination of the orchids transferring pollinia (pollen sacks) from flowers in one site to stigmas in flowers at different sites. Today I used a toothpick that was squared in cross-section. Next time I will upgrade to a toothpick that is round in cross-section. I found I wanted to twist the toothpick to orient the 2 mm long, white pollen sacks on the tip of my toothpick to aim at the stigmas below the anthers on a column on the upper side of the mouth of the orchid blossom. The square toothpick doesn't twist nicely.

    Then when I went to find the one flower that remained on one of the flower stalks that had been broken off, I found that that flower had now been broken off, making one more casualty from suspected off-leash / long-leash and off-trail dogs.

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  9. This morning I did some more transfer of pollen sacks / "pollinia" from flowers in one group to another with my round toothpick. I find it taxes my patience to direct the toothpick tip to the anther at the tip of the column ("gynostemium") with the anther and the stigma, then get a pollinium (pollen sack) to stick to the toothpick tip, then choose which Phantom Orchid spot to bring the pollinium to and which flower to give it to, then nudge open the flower enough to reach the stigma, deeper in the flower than the anther, without damaging the flower or flower stalk, then getting it to stick to the stigma, then keeping track of which flowers I have already pollinated. I expect it is easier for a bee with the pollen sack on its back.

    Then watching the dog owners with their off-leash dogs tearing through, and tearing up, the vegetation of the park, really taxed my patience. There seem to be a few extra of these early in the morning. I don't know if my unhappy and irritated looks at them helped much, but one did leash her dog as I looked at her.

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  10. I am sad to announce that the Phantom Orchid I most recently discovered, in a spot that was historically mowed, but didn't get mowed, at least so far, this season, was knocked down, with most of the flowers stripped off in the process. I had placed larger branches around it to discourage dogs and people from trampling it, but a neat-nick, possibly from Parks staff, but maybe not, removed the branches from the open area that they were in, surrounding the orchid. I expect the orchid was knocked down and stripped of most flowers by the person moving the branches. I always knew that there was a risk of this when I placed the branches, but figured the risk of the dog and human traffic in the area knocking it down was greater. There are still some finished flowers left on the stalk that is knocked down, and I still hope it is alive and can develop seed pods from them.

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  11. I wonder if you could work with the city parks dept to place signage around the areas you are trying to protect. Then people would know your branches are placed intentionally and with the best interest of the park (rather than parks employees and others thinking they are doing their job by cleaning up out of place branches...). It would also be educational to passerby including those with dogs. I stumbled on this article by happenstance and think more people should be aware!!! :).

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  12. I am pleased to add that one more Phantom Orchid has been located in the park by another regular user and naturalist after I had alerted him to our Phantom Orchids.

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