San Francisco Orchids

Those of you who typically associate orchids with the tropical rain forests of South America, Africa or Asia might be surprised to learn that California supports a respectable assortment of members of this most inspiring family. Native orchids can be found from northern California to Baja California, from sea level to nearly 11,000 feet in elevation, and in a variety of habitats from dry forest floors to bogs and meadows. While the orchids found in California are neither as spectacular nor as diverse as those found in other regions of the world (more than 18,000 species in 750 genera have been identified), their discovery is still greeted with at least a little fanfare by botanists and plant fanciers. The Jepson Manual describes 30 native species and one naturalized non-native species of orchids in 11 genera in California.

It would probably come as a surprise to the average San Franciscan to learn that there are native orchids growing right here in this urban center of 750,000 inhabitants. The species, green rein-orchis and ladies tresses, can still be found. Four other species of orchids are recorded as having once occurred here, although sadly they have not been seen in decades and are presumed extirpated in the city. Summer is the time to see our last two species in all their glory. It’s also the time to look for any vestiges of the other four. Here is your official guide to San Francisco’s existing and lost orchids.

Green Rein-orchis (Piperia elegans)

Green rein-orchis is a low terrestrial perennial orchid growing from a tuber-like root called a caudex. It produces two to five linear to widely oblanceolate leaves around ten inches long and up to two inches wide. A spike up to 20 inches high is densely covered with greenish-white flowers about a quarter to a half-inch across. Flowers, which have a curved spur up to a half-inch long, appear between May and September. Green rein-orchis occurs infrequently in dry shrublands and coniferous forests below 1,500 feet in elevation. It is distributed principally along the Coast Ranges from the western Klamath Range to Baja California. In San Francisco, the species is fairly abundant beneath Monterey cypress trees along Lincoln Boulevard between Baker Beach and the Golden Gate Bridge. It can also be found on Bernal Heights, above the Laguna Honda Reservoir, on Mt. Davidson, Twin Peaks, and above O’Shaughessy Avenue in Glen Canyon. Historical locations include Sunset Heights and near Pine Lake west of Stern Grove. Piperia elegans has been treated under a variety of names including Habernaria greenei (used in the A Flora of San Francisco, California, hereafter referred to as S.F. Flora) and H. elegans, H. e. var. maritima, H. maritima, H. greenei, H. michaeli, H. unalascensis, and Planthera elegans.x

Ladies Tresses (Spiranthes romanzoffiana)

Ladies tresses is another herbaceous perennial orchid developing from tuberous roots. It produces a stout, glabrous stem three to 12 inches high. Basal leaves are linear to oblong, one to five inches long. Cauline or stem leaves are reduced to lance-linear bracts one half to three inches long. Flower spikes are one to six inches tall, usually with flowers densely arranged in a distinctive spiral pattern. White to cream flowers, about a half-inch across. Flowers develop from June through August. Ladies tresses are found in wet meadows, freshwater marshes and seeps at elevations up to 10,000 feet. The species occurs in northwestern California and the Modoc Plateau, the Sierra Nevada, the Central Coast, Arizona, New Mexico and the northeastern United States. In San Francisco, ladies tresses can be found growing with green rein-orchis at the west end of the Presidio, and possibly on Mt. Davidson. Historical locations include Point Lobos, Fort Point and Lake Merced.

Michael’s Rein Orchid (Piperia michaeli)

Michael’s rein orchid is very similar in habit and appearance to green rein-orchis. It grows six to 28 inches high with basal leaves three to nine inches long and one half to two inches broad. Flowers are green to yellow-green, and have a spur a quarter to a half inch long. This orchid is on CNPS List 4, indicating that it is of limited distribution. It occurs on dry sites in coastal scrub, woodlands and forests below 2,000 feet. It is found on the North Coast, Sierra Nevada foothills, San Francisco Bay Area, Central Coast and Channel Islands but may be extirpated in San Francisco. Historical locations include the slopes east of Lake Merced, Golden Gate Park, Mission Hills and southeastern San Francisco. S. F. Flora treats this species as Habernaria elegans. We still have some hope of relocating this species in San Francisco someday.

Striped Coralroot (Corallorhiza striata)

This herb, which lives in partially decayed leaf litter, persists underground as a short, branched rhizome. It only appears above ground when flowering from May through July. During this time, it produces red-brown to purplish stems six to 20 inches high. Flowers are pinkish-yellow to whitish and tinged with purple. This widespread species was only once recorded as occurring in San Francisco in the western part of the city in the late 1800’s.

Stream Orchid (Epipactis gigantea)

Growing up to 40 inches high and produces showy greenish to yellowish flowers with red-purple veins, this widespread orchid has not been seen in San Francisco since 1891, when it was recorded as occurring in marshes near the Russ Gardens at Sixth and Harrison streets.

White-flowered Bog-orchid (Planthera leucostachys)

Another tall orchid growing up to 40 inches in height produces a dense inflorescence of white to cream, half-inch flowers. Treated as Habernaria leucostachys in the S. F. Flora, it was recorded from marshy meadows near Visitacion Bay and was said to be “remarkably abundant in a strawberry field beyond St. Mary’s College”.