Plant of the day: phantom orchid

A stark white stalk of flowers catches a beam of sunlight in the woods of Sonoma’s coast range. This dense cone of blooms is completely white; the only color is a pale yellow smudge on each flower’s bottom lip. Phantom orchid, or Cephalanthera austiniae, is the only orchid in North America that has no chlorophyll at all.

No chlorophyll means it can’t make its own food, so the phantom orchid has to steal all of its nutrients from other plants. There are a variety of different ways that plants do this, but the phantom orchid uses fungi as go-betweens! There’s no direct contact between the orchid and its host plant (in this case, actually, the dead plants rotting on the forest floor). Instead, the tiny fibers of the fungus enter the roots of the host plant and pass nutrients along to them. I’m not yet sure what they get out of the deal, but it’s pretty nifty. The technical term for this is “mycoheterotrophic”.

As far as I know this striking orchid doesn’t grow in Marin, but you may see it when you’re hiking in Sonoma and the northern counties, or down in areas around Monterey as well.


Filed under Native, Plant of the day

4 responses to “Plant of the day: phantom orchid

  1. emocrippled

    I am collecting white (alba or semi-alba) orchids, this beauty would have been the queen between my pretties

  2. RonK

    Saw a nice grouping of alba today associated with Western Red Cedar and fir near North Columbia, which is North of Nevada City, at about 3900 ft.

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