Saturday, June 26, 2010

Orchid Hunting in the Columbia River Gorge

Early Thursday morning we left to visit our handicapped son in Spokane. Having spent the day with him we left about 8:00 that evening and headed for the Columbia River Gorge east of Portland to investigate locations for two native orchids.

We drove down through Pasco and Kennewick, Washington, crossed into Oregon and headed west on Highway 84 towards Portland. We arrived near the Dalles Dam on the Columbia at about midnight, crossed back into Washington over the Dalles Bridge, found a place to park the van and slept in the van for the rest of the night.

We can put up curtains in the van and use our backpacking sleeping bags and pads for a decent night's sleep. We slept until about 5:00 am, at which time we headed for our destination, near Bingen, Washington, following the Lewis and Clark Highway westward along the Columbia.

Near Bingen we turned off the highway and followed a County Road to our first location. While my wife slept (it was still only about 5:30 am) I hiked around looking for the orchid we had come to see and photographing some of the other wildflowers that were growing in the area including the Harvest Brodiaea, Brodiaea coronaria, shown here.

Mount Hood was visible across the Columbia and we were able to get some pictures of it also in the morning light. In fact, when my wife awoke, she spent more time photographing Mount Hood than the orchids we had come to see.

After searching everywhere and not finding the orchid, I was about ready to give up and was heading back when I spotted it. I had walked past it several times but missed it since it was only just starting to bloom.

The orchid, one of the Ladies' Tresses, so called because of the braided appearance of its flower spikes, is Spiranthes porrifolia, the Western Ladies' Tresses. This orchid, while uncommon is not that rare, except in the state of Washington where it is found only in this one location.

I had been told that last year twelve plants were blooming in this location. I don't know whether I found them in a different place, but the description was slightly different and I found 65 plants there, several of which were just opening their flowers.

After taking photos we headed further west to another location where we hoped to see the Phantom Orchid, Cephalanthera austinae, blooming. We had a bit of trouble finding the road we needed but finally found both it and the orchid.

We parked the car near an old converted schoolhouse and walked back along a Forest Service road into the woods, a very old and open woodland with almost no understory. Not very far along the road we could see the orchids all over the slope above us.

There must have been nearly a hundred plants growing in that area and, being such a stark white color, they stood out dramatically in the shade and against the darker forest floor.

Cephalanthera austiniae is the only North American representative of a genus that is found in Europe and Asia, and is unique in that it totally lacks chlorophyll. The bone white of the plant is broken only by the yellow-orange color of the lip. They are aptly named the "Phantom Orchid."

These plants are leafless, saprophytic, that is, they derive their nutrients from soil fungi, and very rare. They range from British Columbia down into California and east into Idaho.

Having spent several hours looking for more plants and photographing them, we headed back east along the Columbia and then north towards home, though we had one other stop to make at Red Top Mountain where we hoped to find the Mountain Lady's Slipper in bloom.

Note: The first two pictures in this post were taken by my wife.


  1. The phantoms are magnificent! I loved Catherine Creek when I was there in April. My efforts to get back were bashed by my efforts to get everywhere else , too

    The spiraling is really hilighted by the closed spike. What an exciting sight

  2. Marti,
    I really had to laugh at your comment "My efforts to get back were bashed by my efforts to get everywhere else, too." That fits you perfectly, trying to be everywhere at once, and I wouldn't be surprised that it fits your work habits as well. Catherine Creek is indeed a "must return."


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