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White Mountain Orchid

Pseudorchis straminea

  • Name also: Small White Orchid, Small-white Orchid
  • Latin synonym: Pseudorchis albida ssp. straminea
  • Family: Orchid Family – Orchidaceae
  • Growing form: Perennial herb. Root tubers deeply lobed.
  • Height: 10–25 cm (4–10 in.).
  • Flower: Perianth irregular (zygomorphic), almost tubular, yellowish white, 2–3 mm long (0.08–0.12 in.). Tepals 6, in 2 whorls, arching towards each other, with one elaborated into labellum. Labellum under perianth, spurred, tip 3-lobed, lobes the same length, central lobe wider than lateral lobes. Spur short, pouch-like. Androecium and gynoecium fused into a column, stamens 1, stigmas 2. Inflorescence a quite lax, slightly one-sided spike. Flower with strong fragrance of vanilla.
  • Leaves: Alternate, stalkless, 3–6. Blade narrowly elliptic–lanceolate, tapering tip, parallel-veined, with entire margins, lime greenish.
  • Fruit: Capsule, seeds tiny, like dust.
  • Habitat: Fell heaths, fens. Calciphile.
  • Flowering time: July–August.
  • Endangerment: Vulnerable, protected in all of Finland.

The classification of orchids is sometimes rather messy: white mountain orchid has been variously listed as a member of genus Pseudorchis, Leucorchis or Gymnadenia. Things are no clearer at the species level either: the Nordic countries are home to either one or two white mountain orchid species, depending on whether you take Pseudorchis albida ssp. straminea and Pseudorchis albida ssp. albida as separate species or as subspecies of a single species.

Despite the messiness of its classification, white mountain orchid itself is easy to identify in the wild. Its inflorescence is slightly reminiscent of creeping lady’s tresses (Goodyera repens), but this denizen of old-growth forest never grows beside white mountain orchid. White mountain orchid is one of the rarest plants in Finland, and it only grows on the large fells in the north-western “arm” of Finland: Malla and Salla, and one felltop in Utsjoki. There is also unconfirmed information about Kuusamo, which is home to many other fell plants. Perhaps some trecker in the Oulanka National Park could confirm the facts about the Kitkanniemi white mountain orchid population that have haunted the literature on the subject for years.

White mountain orchid’s flower is almost bell-shaped, so it is probably pollinated by insects with probosces. At least different kinds of small flies pollinate the flowers. Seed production is a prerequisite of the species multiplying because unlike most fell plants white mountain orchid has no means of spreading vegetatively. White mountain orchid seems to hedge its bets by storing up power under the ground for several years before blooming during a particularly favourable summer. The seeds are small and spread well on the fell winds. The only place that the species is known to grow on the other side of the Atlantic is L’Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland, which would appear to be too far for it to have travelled under its own steam. The plant probably travelled there with the Vikings, thus reaching the new continent long before Columbus.

Other species from the same family

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