I’ve been searching for them for five springs, ever since I moved to Colorado—the calypso orchid (Calypso bulbosa or Calypso borealis), also known as fairy slipper orchid. I know where to look: shaded, moist ground under pine trees. Mossy surroundings. Close to coralroot orchids. But every time I hit the right trail, it was the wrong time, either too soon after snowmelt or too late.
Yesterday on the solstice I hit it right: the Ceran St. Vrain Trail, next to the South St. Vrain Creek. Entrance is off Overland Road in the Roosevelt National Forest. There they were, about a mile in from the trailhead, just entering their full bloom. A few groups are visible from the trail, but this one was my favorite:
Calypsos and I have a history together. I learned to know them when I lived in northern California, where they appear every spring on Mt. Tamalpais, just north of the Bay Area. Best of all, they bloom on and around the spring equinox, which most years means right on my birthday. So every spring for more than a decade I made a birthday trek to Mt. Tam to say hello to these beauties. The perfect birthday for me was to pick up a gourmet sandwich on rosemary focaccia in town then drive an hour to Mt. Tam and wander through the forest all day. I organized hikes and dragged friends out to see them. Everyone knew I loved calypsos.
The calypso orchids are only about four inches tall and can easily be overlooked. Each stem has one flat leaf near ground level. I notice some differences from the ones I knew in California: The leaf here does not hug the ground quite as closely, and the front pocket of the orchid flower wears a different pattern of spots and colors. The Colorado variety looks a bit more delicate than its California cousins—a lighter shade of lavender, a smaller stem. They are truly a prize among orchids, not to be missed.
Another place to find them is the Calypso Cascades in Rocky Mountain National Park, accessible from the Wild Basin entrance, and a friend just told me she found them near Lyons, along the Lion Gulch Trail. More trails to explore!
The orchids bloom fairly soon after the snowmelt. Along the Ceran St. Vrain, at 8300 feet, it is often near the summer solstice. Looks like I’ll be enjoying a new summer tradition!
Update July 20: I just found out that the fairy slipper orchid was a favorite of John Muir, and his first published writing was on discovering it in Ontario. Here is his later elaboration of that story.