Fairy Slipper

Also known as a calypso orchid, the fairy slipper (Calypso bulbosa. ) is a beautiful little orchid that grows in forests rich in humus or leaf mould. Fairy slippers are found throughout the western states and all of Canada.

Each fairy slipper plant consists of a single bright pink flower on a leafless stem with a single oval leaf. The plant arises from a bulb-like corm (short, thickened, underground stem).  The solitary flower has a sweet fragrance, three sepals and two narrow, pointed petals above. The lip petal is mottled with variable orange/yellow/white and is tipped  by two small “horns” or spurs. There is also a cluster of golden hairs on the lip petal. The single, oval, dark green leaf is produced at the top of the corm in the fall and persists throughout the winter, withering in the summer. The stem is  yellow-brown or purple-brown and covered with sheathing bracts. The fairy orchid is a small plant growing only 2 to 8 inches tall.

Fairy slippers are rapidly being exterminated, particularly in highly traveled areas. Because they are so small, fairy slippers are trampled by careless hikers. Their delicate beauty makes them a target for picking. The corms are attached by fragile roots that break at the slightest disturbance of the stem. When the flowers are picked the plants die.

Haida Indians ate the corms in small quantities. The corms have a buttery flavor. I tried one corm one time. It did taste good. However, because of their rarity in many places their use is not recommended.

Calypso, the goddess of Atlas, means “concealment”. The genus name for this tiny, often overlooked orchid probably derives from the fact that it is difficult to see.

These calypso orchids were photographed on BLM lands near Howard Prairie Reservoir in Oregon. The orchid with the fingers for scale was not picked. I do hope we were gentle enough to not disturb the plant. The leaves of the fairy slipper, in their undisturbed environment, are the two darker green ones. Also, note the two “horns” on the bottom of the lip petal.

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