Orchids in Alaska

Yes, you read that right. As improbable as it may seem, Alaska has over 30 species of orchids, which is over ten times as many native orchids as Hawaii. Our plants are terrestrial, meaning they grow in soil, as do most North American and European species.

Orchids in Hawaii

Hawaii has three native orchids, and they are:

Liparis Hawaiensis: Blooming high in the tree canopies, it is a tiny flowered species, usually green in color.

Anoectochilus sandvicensis:  Of the three, this one is the most common. Also found high in the trees.

Platanthera Holochila: known as the fringed orchid it is now on the Endangered Species list. The flowers are fairly small and are greenish-yellow in color. These plants are terrestrial.

So two of the three native Hawaiian orchids are epiphytic, meaning they don’t grow in the ground but instead grow in trees or on rocks. So their roots grow into the air rather than underground. Epiphytes are not parasites. They do not take anything from the host plant. Epiphytes grow on other plants but get their moisture and nutrients from air, rain and debris drifting down from trees.

So where do all of the other types come from?

“Because of Hawaii’s warm, humid environment, it is a natural breeding ground for these types of plants. As a direct result, several varieties of them have been imported and breed naturally throughout the islands. Dendrobium orchids are one of the more popular varieties that are being farmed throughout the Islands. These are farmed and then marketed for a variety of consumer needs, from house plants to producing leis.” That’s why orchids are everywhere on the Islands: trees, rock walls, gardens etc. The flowers also garnish your umbrella drinks (Mai Tai anyone?) The demand is so high for orchid flowers “and even with the development of orchid farms, it is still nearly impossible to keep up with the demands from the natives and tourists for leis. Consequently, a lot of orchid flowers found in leis have been imported from Asia, Thailand in particular.”

From The Orchid Resource site

Meanwhile, back here in Alaska…

From the Aleutians, Kodiak Island, and the Kenai Peninsula, when you see where these places are located, you’ll gain a new appreciation for the term ‘hardy orchids’. The Bering Glacier, in coastal south-central Alaska, is exceptionally diverse with 13 species of orchids growing on its rugged terrain. To learn more about all of Alaska’s orchids, visit Go Orchids.

The hands-down favorite variety in the Alaska Botanical Garden is the distinctive Spotted Lady’s Slipper, Cypripedium guttatum which ranges over much of Alaska, from the Aleutian chain throughout the Alaska Range, south to the Kenai Peninsula and into the Yukon Territory. It does not cross the Brooks Range so is absent from the arctic tundra.

In the Garden the “Cyps” are located in the Rock Garden area and typically bloom in June. This year they bloomed on Solstice. Our Garden Explorer that is found on our website, shows the locations of up to six orchids on site.

Calypso bulbosa

Calypso bulbosa

Family: Orchidaceae
Common name: Venus’s slipper, fairy-slipper

There are two varieties of this orchid in North America. It is found in bogs, disturbed habitats, floodplains, forests, swamps and woodlands.

Cypripedium guttatum. Photo: sunoochi

Cypripedium guttatum

Family: Orchidaceae
Common name: Spotted Lady’s Slipper, Lady Slipper Orchid

Pollinator information for this orchid has not been reported in North America but in other parts of its range this orchid is pollinated by various Lasioglossum bees.

Cypripedium passerinum. Photo: Jason Hollinger

Cypripedium passerinum

Family: Orchidaceae
Common name: Sparrowegg Lady’s Slipper

Unlike other Lady’s Slippers, This species is self-fertilizing and does not require a pollinator for reproduction. The stigma and anthers develop in such a way that they are in contact with each other.

Neottia borealis. Photo: Chloe and Trevor Van Loon

Neottia borealis

Family: Orchidaceae
Common name: listère boréale

The Northern Twayblade can be found in muskeg and woodlands in south central Alaska and into the Yukon Territory. The green color blends into the mossy background so one has to look closely to find it.

Platanthera aquilonis. Photo: Tom Hilton

Platanthera aquilonis

Family: Orchidaceae
Common name: Northern Green Orchid, Northwind Bog Orchid

The flowers are commonly self-pollinating: the pollinia rotate forward and downward out of the pollen sacs and deposit pollen on the stigma, or the pollen spills in a stream from the pollen sacs onto the stigma.

Platanthera obtusata. Photo: Jason Hollinger 

Platanthera obtusata

Family: Orchidaceae
Common name: Bluntleaved Orchid

This orchid is pollinated by moths and several species of mosquitoes. The mosquito enters the flower in search of nectar, which the orchid produces and stores in the slender, downward projected spur. At the slightest touch, the pollinia spring forward and attach themselves by their sticky, discoid base to the head and eyes of the mosquito. On departing, the insect often can be seen carrying on its head what looks like one or two tiny yellow horns. When the mosquito visits a second flower, the pollinia are put in contact with the stigma, transferring pollen.The flowers have a strong, spicy scent.

This is primarily a wetland species, found in wet marshes, fens, bogs, along riverbanks and roadsides, and in wet tundra environments in the northern part of its range.

The Alaska Botanical Garden has several members of orchids in various locations. These can be found on our website under the Explore the Collections tab.

Patrick Ryan is an Alaska Master Gardener and the Education Specialist for the Alaska Botanical Garden. A retired elementary school teacher, Patrick is a member of the Anchorage Community Forest Council and sits on the board for Alaska Agriculture in the Classroom.

4 comments on “Orchids in Alaska

  1. You know, . . . Sabal minor is a species of palm that is native to Oklahoma, so Oklahoma has as many native species of palm as California. Also, all species of palm that are native to Hawaii are within the same genus of Pritchardia, so Oklahoma has as many native genera of palm as Hawaii.

    • Fascinating post. Orchids are astonishingly well adapted to very specific conditions in almost all climates.

      • Yes, even more so than palms. Nonetheless, it seems surprising to find them in ecosystems that we do not consider to be appropriate for them.

      • Patrick Ryan

        Thanks for commenting, Cathy!

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