The Calypso Orchid—Shady Trickster of the Understory

February 22, 2023
Calypso: an orchid that's brash yet secretive. Photo by Stephanie Penn.
Meet Calypso. (Photo by Stephanie Penn)

It’s early spring, the hills are green, and the puddles are just drying out, and I’m searching the dark conifer understory of my local North Bay park for flashes of pink. The word ‘orchid’ conjures images of lush jungles far from the Bay Area, but one gem of the family—Calypso bulbosa—grows in the shade of our own ferny forest groves.

The first time I saw one, hiking along the forested slopes of Mount Tamalpais, I gasped. It looks like a flower from a Star Trek set on some distant, verdant planet. It is gaping and brash, and if you get up close, the reward is a striking mosaic of pink, white, and yellow. I return every spring for a glimpse. 

Perhaps you remember from high-school English class that Calypso is a character from Homer’s Odyssey, a sea-nymph who captured Odysseus for seven years before he escaped. I was a little puzzled by this dramatic reference until I learned the Greek root for calypso, kalyptein, means to cover or conceal—probably more a reference to the orchid’s preference for shadowy, duff-covered forest floors than any likeness to a possessive sea-witch. Other common names are more intuitive if not completely whimsical—fairy-slipper or Venus’ slipper, which remind me of the forest fairy houses I used to meticulously build out of rocks as a child, leaving out acorn caps as hats and leaves as umbrellas.

The calypso orchid is a tricky sort. Many orchids have irregularly shaped flowers with an enlarged lower lip, but their pollination strategies vary dramatically. Some deliver big-time in terms of nectar; others encourage pollinators, essentially, to mate with them through mimicry. Calypso’s cartoonishly large lower lip is like a blazing neon sign for pollinators far and wide, while its furry yellow appendages look just like the anthers where these visiting insects would normally find nectararies nearby. (An anther is a small orb circling the inside of a flower, covered with a thick layer of pollen.) But the anthers are fakes and so are the nectaries, and visiting pollinators—usually bumblebees—find that their stop is a waste of time. For the calypso is all show, and no nectar. Pollinators will not return after wasting precious calories on this mistake, but that single visit to the flashy landing strip is all the trickster needs for pollination.

Instead of nectar, it gives up pollen. But rather than collecting a smattering of individual pollen grains on their legs, the insects collect pollinia, which are more like bulky suitcases of pollen that stick to their legs and bodies. Pollinia are released from a single anther—an incredible evolutionary tactic for spreading genetic material en masse. They are common among orchids. 

And, incidentally, they are ubiquitous amongst milkweeds, too. I’ve yet to see a calypso orchid transfer pollinia to a bee, but I once watched in awe as honeybees collected the fat packets from milkweed flowers in my garden at home, spreading them as they went. It seemed as if the pollinia should weigh down the bees, but these sturdy pollinators didn’t seem to mind the extra baggage in the unquenchable quest for sweet nectar. 

The calypso is up to more cryptic workings beyond the human eye, beneath the soil. This orchid is nearly impossible to transplant because it relies in part on belowground fungal structures for nutrients and to support germination and seedlings. But much is still unknown about its underground life. 

The calypso is a flower of contrasts. It is brash and brilliant—and yet easy to walk right past in the dark understory. I’ll never stop returning to the forest’s secret corners, to appreciate this hidden, spectacular plant.

Finding Calypso

Seek out the calypso in the shade of coastal conifer woodlands from March to June. Look for the bright pink bloom popping out of the leaf litter and duff. Always respect park rules and stay on trail. And don’t pick the flower. Picking and trampling are the main threats to this sensitive plant—and picking a single flower kills the whole plant. 

Some places you might find it, based on Calflora data:

South Bay
• Pescadero Creek Park
• Butano State Park
• Big Basin

North Bay
• Marin Municipal Water District: Steep Ravine Trail, Cataract Trail, Bolinas Ridge, Alpine Dam, Phoenix Lake
• Roys Redwoods Preserve
• Throughout Point Reyes
• Jack London State Park
• Samuel P. Taylor State Park
• Jenner Headlands
• Any deeply shaded redwood understory in the Mount Tam watershed
• Bothe-Napa State Park
• Annadel State Park

About the Author

Alison is a nature lover who wears many hats, but usually prefers them to be wide-brimmed and sun-protecting. As a restoration practitioner and educator, she believes connection to nature is critical and should be accessible to everyone, regardless of whether it's through the immensity of the backcountry or the magic of a seed germinating on a windowsill. If she’s not tending her porch garden or cooking tasty treats, she’s probably searching for wildflowers with her three-legged dog, Luna.

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