Life of Calypso bulbosa var. americana in North

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Well-Known Member
Apr 7, 2012
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Fairbanks, Alaska, USA
Calypso bulbosa has a wide geographic distribution, and the distribution covers lots of latitude. In south (e.g. California), I believe it is summer dormant. I have been wondering about the life history of this species in the North (I'm in interior Alaska). So I've tried to visit our neighbor population as frequently as possible. My son, who just became 3, is quite a bit of naturalist, so he is always excited to visit the site (well, his main motivation might have been to throw pebbles into the pond near the population).

First, photos of the flowers (I think I posted these previously, and these are not from this year):

Nymph, on Flickr

gathering of nymphs, on Flickr

May 4
The next photo is about 2 weeks after snow-melt. The plants appear to overwinter with the leaf out, and the flower bud is ready to expand. They are probably insulated by snow in winter, and may not experience below -10C even though the air temp can go down to -40C.

May 4, on Flickr

May 26
The flowers develop really quickly, and it flowers within a month of snow melt. It is actually near the end of flowering season. The photo is taken at a different population from the one near my house, but these two populations are pretty close to each other.

May 26, on Flickr

July 17
Fruits are formed. I think the dehiscence of the fruits occurred in the beginning of August. So it is about 2.3 months after blooming. Note that the leaves (which were produced during the last summer/fall) are becoming yellow.

July 17, on Flickr

At the same time, a new leave for next year is starting to expand.

July 17, on Flickr

Sept. 18
The new leaf is fully expanded. A flower bud for the next year is already formed. Within 2 more weeks, the daily min. temp will hit the freezing point (0C). Plants are likely to be under snow by the end of October. The shoulder season is the time when plants can experience extreme temperature.

Sept. 18, on Flickr

Detail of the flower bud for the next spring.

Sept. 18, on Flickr

Overall, the growth pattern in the north appears to be similar to the pattern of southern plants. I've not observed this species in south, so I do not know what they do during the hot summer (are they really dormant with no green leaves?). In north, the renewal of leaves occurs during the summer, but they appear to have green leaves always in the summer. It makes sense because the plants have to go through rapid growth in the short growing season of interior Alaska. Life is intense in North!
Interestingly they are only found along the coast. In CA's warmer areas all signs of the plant, seed capsule included, are gone by June. It goes down to Santa Cruz County, which is mountainous.

The book goes on to say that there are two distinct groups of white flowers in Trinity county.
Nice history Naoki, thank you. I'd like to see this species (v. speciosa) in Japan, but have never visited its habitat before. I have seen v. americana in Montana and Colorado in October and August (respectively), and in both cases it was in leaf. I've also been in its habitat in western China, but saw no plants or flowers (June). Those more southern Pacific coast populations belong to v. occidentalis, and to my knowledge are summer dormant as a rule.
Cool photo study.

I think we have one left in NJ. Somewhere in the Pine Barrens.
If the location was known, it would be on ebay tomorrow.
I have seen these in flower in abundance in Oregon at Cave Junction on 1st July (raining torrentially at the time)and at several other places in Northern California around the same time of year.

I grow var occidentalis here in the UK and it is always dormant from after flowering in April much earlier than in the wild until now when it has just come into leaf.
It is somewhat puzzling why they renew the leaves in the summer. It makes sense in the warmer region with dry summer, where they can grow well in the winter (and avoid the summer by going dormant). From the California distribution, the coastal region doesn't have dry summer, neither, does it?

Tom, do they grow only in Northern Japan?

It is growing in moss, fallen leaves and branches. In cold boreal forest, decomposition rate is pretty slow, so I expect that the soil fertility is pretty low. Below the fallen leaves, it is clay-like soil (I think it is glacier origin). I haven't poked around the root area, so I don't know how deep the root goes down.

Tony, that's amazing, have you been growing var. occidentals for a long time? I know Berthold has been successful with their culture, too.
I have been growing them for about five years. They have a precarious hold on life and I started with three which divided several times and got up to eight but now two have died in dormancy and I am back to six.

The roots are almost non existent about an inch or so long and seem to be there almost to give stability rather than anything else. The plants live in the top inch of moss.

They have produced seed and I have passed this on to a German contact but have had no news of it's progress.

In Oregon I once saw a line of them growing in moss along a fallen tree trunk in full sun but on a visit a couple of years later the tree had rotted to nothing and the plants were gone.
Tony, that's great to hear that you have kept it for 5 years. I hope you'll get some seedlings back!

Did it produce seeds by itself (i.e. without hand pollination)? Are you keeping them outside? Some bees might pollinate it. Or if it is kept inside, it might be able to do self-fertilization by itself (called autonomous selfing). It was reported that this species is mostly outcrossing, but it is interesting to know whether they can potentially do autonomous selfing. I saw a paper talking about the pollination of this species. They do not offer any reward (like most of orchids), so they need to use deception. It was suggested that newly born bees may be pollinating because they hasn't learned that Calypso doesn't offer any reward. For var. americana, the yellow color around the lip could be the mimic of pollen. I think that some people thought that Calypso is a mimic of Shooting Star (Dodecatheon). But an experiment didn't support it.

In the population which I watch, I've never seen any pollinator visits (well, I can't stay there too long in the blooming season because of too much mosquitoes), but they do set surprising amount of fruits.
Naoki, in Japan this species is confined to subalpine coniferous forest from central Honshu's Alps region and northward. I've seen it in very similar conditions in both western NA and W China - a truly boreal species.

As far as I know their root systems never penetrate true soil, but remain as stated by Tony, superficially clinging to the humus and moss layer above the soil or on old logs.
mine are grown in an unheated greenhouse beneath the bench in full shade. I did pollinate them myself but there are lots of insects in and out as the door and vents are always open and so I do not know if it was my efforts or theirs that produced the seed.
My home made Calypso babies. They will be covered by a 1 cm moss layer

They have produced seed and I have passed this on to a German contact but have had no news of it's progress.

Some seeds were infected due to insufficient disinfection of the seed before sowing. Other seed are in progress