Calypso orchids at last!

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.


7 Responses to Calypso orchids at last!

  1. Rivvy Neshama says:June 23, 2011 at 9:10 am

    OMG, they’re beautiful, and they do look like fairy slippers! Thank you for sharing this.

  2. Marian Thier says:June 23, 2011 at 9:17 am

    What a fruitful and beautiful search. I know how thrilling it is to discover, in plain sight, something so cherished and elusive. Thanks for sharing.

  3. Dana says:June 23, 2011 at 10:16 am

    simply gorgeous. thank you for sharing!

    • Priscilla Stuckey, PhD says:June 23, 2011 at 12:55 pm

      Wow, Dana, that’s high praise coming from a pro like yourself! Folks, check out Dana’s wonderful portrait photography. Click on her name here, and then go to her Galleries page. My favorite gallery is of four-legged people. Heart-stopping!

  4. Kristina Holmes says:June 24, 2011 at 9:54 am

    Beautiful, Priscilla.

    In my Hawaii days, I developed a large family of all different kinds of orchids. I’d spend some of my weekend days wandering huge orchid farms, soaking in all of their incredible variety: colors, textures and shapes beyond imagination. One of my favorite orchids had the soft ethereal color of sunrise in Hawaii… pale yellow and pink.

    Thanks for posting….


  5. Gail Storey says:June 24, 2011 at 10:25 am

    I look to you and your blog posts, Priscilla, for a moment of heartstopping beauty that stays with me all day, and I’m never disappointed. Deep gratitude.

  6. Debbie Mihal says:June 24, 2011 at 11:37 pm

    I was once doing a meditation practice as I hiked in Rocky Mountain National Park. Something told me to go sit by the creek NOW, so I did. For about a half hour, I enjoyed the sites and sounds of the rushing water. When I turned to grab my fanny pack, which I’d just unbuckled after I sat, I saw a beautiful orchid. I hadn’t seen it when I sat down, so I took it as a sign. Of what, I’m not sure. Fairies and magic? Perhaps.