26 July 2009

"We should have been foaming at the mouth..."

It was late-July and the Rocky Mountain orchid season was drawing to a close. When two good friends, First Man* and CJ*, invited me to accompany them on a hike in the mountains around Breckenridge, I didn't hesitate. I thought this would be the perfect opportunity to go hunting for terrestrial orchids. I had visions of us locating great species, like the spotted coralroot, the roundleaf orchid, or perhaps the glorious yellow lady's slipper - if we got particularly lucky. Instead, what we managed to do was prove that even three plant scientists, armed to the back teeth with guide books, can still be quite naive and actually very stupid when left to their own devices in the wilderness...

The weather was absolutely perfect as we breached 11,000 ft. in the shadow of Quandary Peak. The mountain itself, highest in the Tenmile Range at 14,265 ft., was teeming with climbers trying to reach the summit. However, we weren't there to test our mountaineering skills. We were there to revel in the botanical splendour that is the alpine summer. When warmth and liquid water have been absent for so long, plants seem to put in extra metabolic effort to really make the most of these summer resources. Wildflowers were everywhere: columbines with their bi-coloured cups; whiproot clover hugging the scree slopes; violets; forget-me-nots; saxifrage and primrose shimmering on the banks of streams; red and yellow paintbrush; asters and monkshood competing to see who had the most intense shade of purple. And higher up, their petals shredded by howling winds, alpine sunflowers. I started to feel giddy from all the biodiversity around me. Or it may have been the altitude, it's difficult to tell. No sign of a single orchid, though. Were we too late? Had they all gone?

We rounded a corner on the trail and came across a stand of the most peculiar plant (
above). We stopped dead in our tracks. It was beautiful. Mid-green, pleated leaves bursting towards the sky from large clumps. We had to know what this thing was, taxonomically pin it down on the herbarium cards inside our heads. You could tell by the venation of the leaves that what we had here was a monocot. Which still meant it could be any one of around 60,000 species of plants. Was it some sort of lily? Or was it Cypripedium parviflorum, the yellow lady's slipper orchid? I so desperately wanted it to be the latter. Slippers are unmistakable in bloom, but this one didn't have a single flower on it. So as geeks do in situations like these, we whipped out the guide books. Mine had a lot of interesting text, but the pictures, frankly, were total crap. CJ's book contained more flower porn than you could shake a large stick at, so we elected to look through hers first.

Nothing. Couldn't find this thing at all. Looked through my book next, but to no avail. Mosquitoes started buzzing around our heads. It was time to move on. The trail was marked on First Man's GPS, so we could always come back this way if we didn't see it again. As we were hiking past stone cairns piled by previous explorers, CJ and I decided that it just might be an orchid, since the leaves looked so similar. Here's a picture of the yellow lady's slipper (left). Wouldn't you agree? Big, mid-green, pleated leaves. Identical. Especially because I wanted it to be identical. Which was a big mistake. We finally found another clump of the mystery plant. Against our better judgement (and park regulations, possibly) CJ and I waded into it. We stood waist-deep in the stuff. CJ caressed the leaves with her fingers, as I turned them upside-down to scrutinize the surprisingly hairy undersides. I almost suggested digging one up to look at its root structure (since terrestrial orchids generally have distinctive underground tubers), but luckily the environmentalist in me vetoed that idea.

Then we noticed the inflorescences. Two plants way in the back of the clump had the beginnings of enormous flower spikes forming, with lots of tiny, green undeveloped flowers forming. This was the evidence that shattered the fantasy. This was clearly no orchid, but something entirely different. In the end, we hiked all the way above treeline, to hidden lakes, and all the way back down again, without discovering any orchids. I had a truly terrific time, of course, but the orchid hunter in me was disappointed. We also failed to uncover the identity of the mystery plant, which was most unsatisfying. So that evening, after dinner and in the warm comfort of the cabin, we turned to every scientist's last resort. We Googled it.

Guessing that its colloquial name may have the word "lily" in it (don't they all?) I spent some time doing image searches with various forms of "lily" or "lilies" and "Rockies" or "Rocky Mountains". And then I found it: Veratrum californicum, the corn lily. Without a doubt. CJ and I excitedly grabbed our guide books again. Interestingly enough, the plant and related species were listed in both our books. The images were just really bad likenesses, so we had simply ignored those entries while on the mountain. Once again, a mistake, as we discovered when I read aloud from the entry in my book.

This plant, also known as the California false hellebore, is poisonous. And not just poisonous, the book informed us. Violently poisonous. "Eating even small amounts can result in unconsciousness, followed by death," we were informed. The symptoms of corn lily poisoning apparently include, "frothing at the mouth, blurred vision, lock-jaw, vomiting and diarrhea" and "people have reported stomach cramps after drinking water in which this plant was growing". Geez. We'd been waist-deep in them, touching their furry leaves. A brush with death, literally. Native Americans used to boil the roots and use the resulting extract to kill lice. I was suddenly very glad I had elected not to dig one up. Veratrum californicum contains the teratogenic alkaloids jervine and cyclopamine, which cause major birth defects such as cyclopia. Oh dear.

Just the week before, I had finished reading Wicked Plants by Amy Stewart - a beautiful and fascinating book all about spiky, toxic, invasive and poisonous plants. How ironic. I guess I learned two valuable lesssons on this trip. One: just because you want something to be true, it doesn't necessarily make it so. Two: assume every creature unfamiliar to you will try to kill you somehow. We so desperately wanted to find an orchid that we did things against our better judgement. Even in the mountains, orchids cast their crazy spell. Days later, when we'd all gone back to work, I noticed that CJ had changed her Facebook status to read, "After seeing the photos... we should have been foaming at the mouth".

*Names have been changed to protect the ignorant.

Photography credit: alpine meadow and Veratrum californicum © The Electric Orchid Hunter (that's me!); Cypripedium parviflorum © David Tees and Melanie Schori