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Many people associate orchids with the tropics, and consider that if they were to be found at all in cooler climates, they would be only found in greenhouses or under cultivation. That isn't the case; orchids are probably the most diverse and species-rich group of the flowering plants, and they are found in virtually every habitat where other flowers grow.
Cypripedium passerinum,the sparrow's egg orchid, may reach its southern-most limit in the Montana Rocky Mountains.
Montana is home to about 30 to 35 native, and one exotic and weedy, species of orchids. While some of these are, without a doubt, the most unprepossessing of wild flowers, a few others at the other end of the spectrum are truly spectacular and really give new meaning to the "wild" in wild flowers. Images of most species may be found by following the "species" link at the left of the page.
Note that ALL orchids have symbiotic relationships with fungi.
Probably because of this, virtually NONE of Montana's native orchids will survive transplanting. If you search for wild orchids, leave them in the wild. Do not kill them by attempting to transplant them.
Orchids are not distributed evenly throughout Montana. Most species are found in the mountainous western part of the state. Virtually no species have been reported from the prairies of Eastern Montana, but I think this may be simply an artifact of insufficient searching. An old truism about science is that "you can only find what you are looking for," and I really don't think many botanical surveys have examined the eastern part of the state looking for wild flowers, or more particularly, orchids.
For the last 10 years I have been embarked on crusade to photograph all of the Montana orchids in their natural settings, as part of what will, I hope, develop into a book on these wonderful flowers.
As far as the orchids are concerned Montana may be divided into four regions.
A map of Montana showing the approximate number of orchids in each area. Map used by permission of the copyright holder, Dr. Ray Sterner, Johns Hopkins University, Applied Physics Laboratory.
- The first region is the Swan River Valley, east of Flathead Lake. This area is the orchid hot spot of Montana and at least 25 species may be found there, and a few of these, such as Liparis loeselii, are found nowhere else in the state. In and around some of the fens and boggy areas in the Swan River Valley, live a LOT of orchids.
- The second region is the remaining area west of the continental divide. Wetter than the areas immediately to the east of the divide, this region contains about 20 orchid species overall, although most specific localities only have between five and ten species.
- The third area is the mountainous area east of the continental divide. In some of these areas, such as along the front range of the Rocky Mountains, up to about 15 orchid species are found. Most of these are in protected areas, or in fragile environments where they are protected against the two scourges of Montana's orchids, cattle and humans. Most regions in these eastern areas have three or fewer species, but there are some hot spots with 10 or more species.
- Finally, there are the great prairie areas of the eastern part of Montana. In these areas no orchids have been reported.
There are some defined groups of orchids found in Montana and elsewhere. First, there are the lady slippers, represented in Montana by four species of Cypripedium. Then there are dry forest orchids, represented by the Coral Root Orchids ( Corallorhiza , 5 species), the fairly slipper ( Calypso bulbosa ), the Rattlesnake Plantains ( Goodyera , 2 species), four species of twayblades, ( Listera species) and a few of the rein orchids, ( Piperia , and Platanthera ). The bog orchids are well represented by the genera Amerorchis , Epipactis , Piperia , Platanthera , Coeloglossum , Liparis , Listera, Spiranthes , containing about 15 species altogether. In a few areas, a couple of orchid species in this region may be called stream orchids, living in or very near flowing water. These plants are in the genus Listera and Epipactis .
Although all of these flowers may be locally abundant, some of them are decidedly rare in the state as a whole. A few of them are uncommon, due to habitat loss caused mainly by cattle grazing or inappropriate farming practices, development for housing, urban sprawl, or direct harvesting by humans.
A couple of species buck this trend and are very common, almost to the point of being weeds, Platanthera dilatata and P . hyperborea fall into this category. These species may often be found growing in barrow pits or other disturbed areas. One orchid found mostly in disturbed areas is the Ute orchid, Spiranthes diluvialis. Recently found in the state, and considered very rare, it is small unobtrusive plant that I think will turn out to be surprisingly common.
I am always on the look out for new locality information, if you find something of interest, please contact me.