Cephalanthera austiniae

Ruth and I cowrote today’s entry:

First of all, we would like to thank Kevin Deboer for today’s photographs, posted in the Cephalanthera austiniae photo gallery on the E-Flora BC site (and used here with permission).

Who would have thought that the dainty and glamorous Orchidaceae would supply two of Halloween week’s specimens? This ghostly species, Cephalanthera austiniae, is commonly known as the phantom orchid. The common name is due to its white colouration and preferred habitat — mature and old-growth forests, where it resides in understories with few competitors.

Due to the lack of any colouration, it is readily apparent that this species does not photosynthesize. Instead, it is a mycoheterotroph; “an achlorophyllous, nonphotosynthetic plant that obtains fixed carbon from photosynthetic plants via mycorrhizal fungi” (ref.). This mechanism is similar to the one employed by Monotropa uniflora. In the case of Cephalanthera austiniae, it grows in association with fungal species in the Thelophoraceae. As noted by Brian Klinkenberg in this article on the phantom orchid in British Columbia, it is actually a subset of the Thelophoraceae — a group known as the black thelophorids — in which it shares an association. Black thelophorids are restricted to mature forests, hence one of the restrictions on phantom orchid distribution and abundance.

Cephalanthera austiniae is a native to British Columbia and extends south to Washington, Oregon, California and Idaho. In British Columbia, the phantom orchid is restricted to thirteen sites in three general locales: the Saanich Peninsula on Vancouver Island, Salt Spring Island and near Chilliwack. This restricted range and low number of plants (only 42 flowering stems observed within BC in 2000) has led to it being designated a red-listed species in British Columbia. BOO!

Cephalanthera austiniae
Cephalanthera austiniae

10 responses to “Cephalanthera austiniae”

  1. Don Fenton

    Beautiful photies of a fascinating plant! I’m not quite up to all of the botanical jargon, but could someone tell me just where it is that this little beast located within the Ochidaceae? I seem to remember a technical term for plants like this – saffro-something – just means fungi-supported – but a bit outmoded fron what I can gather. Its stiil a beautiful photograph.

  2. Harri Harmaja

    Thank you for the very nice photo of this “ghost” plant”!
    I wish to make a small correction in spelling. The fungus family dealt with is Thelephoraceae, its type genus being Thelephora. And related fungi are called thelephoroids (not “thelophorids”).
    Sincerely, Harri

  3. Jonathan Knisely

    Don: The term you were searching your memory for may be ‘saphrophytic’, which is a not-infrequently encountered misremembrance of the word ‘saprophytic’. Fungi that live on the nutrients in once-live organic detritus are saprophytes. Perhaps the term is extended to those plants that parasitize a living plant for part or all of their sustenance.

  4. TC

    I’ve enjoyed Halloween week with UBC Botany Photo of the Day. Great job with all the write-ups and the photos.

  5. siusi

    que coisa mais encantadora!!!

  6. cheriee

    A number of years ago I saw a plant like this in a park between Terrace and Kitamat. In fact I thought this was it until I read your information about its range. Now I am wondering what I saw!

  7. elizabeth a airhart

    and a great big BOO to you too
    ghost orchids have been in bloom
    in my part of florida now have fun
    for the headless horse man rides tonight

  8. Stuart

    I may be misremembering my orchid botany, but aren’t all orchids mycoheterotrophs when they just germinate? The dust-like orchid seeds lack endosperm and the very young plants rely on a symbiotic relationship with some fungus until they are mature enough to produce photosynthetic leaves. Apparently, this species continues the mycoheterotrophy into adulthood.

  9. Emily

    What time of year do these lovely creatures pop up? The two saprophytes I’ve encountered appeared at different times. Around early July, I found Spotted Coralroot (Corallorrhiza maculata) and then after that died back, Indian Pipe (Monotropa uniflora) emerged.

  10. Bob

    That is a nice plant, and nice photos as always. The USDA database shows it occurs here where I live in northern Idaho. I will keep an eye out for it.
    Does anyone know about the person after whom the species is named?? A Miss or Mrs. Austin, I presume.

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