Helliborine Orchid

Nature Notes by Dr. Frank Lang

Orchids are always exciting to find. My discovery of the Helliborine orchid in Jackson County was no exception. The beauty of its flower was not that exciting, although it is a step above the tway-blade and rattlesnake plantain. I didn’t recognize it; that is what made it interesting. Not to recognize species of sedges or willows is one thing, not to recognize an orchid is something else.

The plants were not in bloom when first discovered. I mentioned to my companion I thought the leaves looked like the chatterbox orchid, Epipactus gigantea. We left without collecting specimens intending to return when the plants were flowering. The next day I checked specimens in the Southern Oregon University herbarium and did a little reading. The plants didn’t seem quite right for the chatterbox. I had to wait for flowers.

When I finally saw the plant in bloom, it was apparent it wasn’t the chatterbox. I identified the plant using Donovan Correll’s book, Native Orchids of North America. The plant was the Helliborine orchid, Epipactus helliborine, not a native plant. My first guess wasn’t too far off the mark. It turns out this plant is our only weedy orchid, an Eurasian native, and has a fairly well-documented history of invasion across North America from east to west.

Mrs. MO Rust of the Syracuse Botanical Club first collected the plant in North America, August 1879, at Syracuse, New York. In 1890, it was reported from Lamberton Mills near Toronto, Canada. In subsequent years, it spread rapidly throughout eastern North America. By 1950 it was known from Quebec, Ontario, New Hampshire, Vermont, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Michigan, Indiana, Missouri, Montana (where it was probably a cultivated plant) and Eurasia, its native home. In the 1960s, it was reported from gardens in Victoria, British Columbia and from counties around San Francisco Bay. In 1985, I found the Jackson County population of several hundred plants growing under Douglas fir, big-leaf maple, Oregon ash, and white alder on an old river terrace between Dodge Bridge and Shady Cove on the Rogue River.

How did the Helliborine orchid get to Jackson County, Oregon? Perhaps the species is widespread, as Lewis Clark maintains in his book, Wildflowers of the Pacific Northwest.Perhaps it is widespread, but unrecognized, and there are nearby, undiscovered populations. Not likely with all the knowledgeable botanists around these days.

Perhaps it was introduced in a nearby garden where it grows unnoticed. What gardener wouldn’t notice an unexpected orchid in the roses?

Orchid seeds are among the smallest known, often just a tiny collection of cells weighing micrograms. Wind can carry seeds this small for considerable distances. But here the nearest known populations are hundreds of miles away and the prevailing winds aren’t quite right. Not likely.

The Jackson County population grows in a woodlot where cattle have been run for the past 25 years. The land owner thinks some of the cattle were imported from Montana or California. Could cows have carried seeds in hooves or hair? A long shot at best.

We probably will never know how the Jackson County population became established. Look for this distinguished weed, though. Perhaps you’ll find some botanical excitement of your own and help solve another one of nature’s mysteries.

— Dr. Frank Lang

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