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Orchids: Rare Beauties in the Crown of the Continent

Natural Area, Garden or Arboretum

Naturalist Steve Wirt calls Montana’s wild orchids "belly flowers," because you have to get down low to appreciate them. Roughly 40 native species of orchidaceae - the Earth’s largest family of flowering plants - may be found in the Crown of the Continent.

A pair of fairy slippers - Calypso bulbosa – Cate Turner-Jamison

My own obsession with orchids slowly emerged over the past four decades in Montana. It took many years to understand my father’s persuasion of slogging through (yet another!) bog. Cursing the swarms of mosquitoes with each muck-filled and uncertain step, neither I nor my three brothers could grasp the fascination that compelled him to pause, murmuring Latin names that were just as far beyond our understanding. There, beneath his mumblings, an unlikely top-heavy blossom with a silly-looking, white bulbous pouch bobbed in the breeze.

"Cypripedium Montanum," he might have said, his face fallen to reverence. Or, perhaps, he’d slip into botanical slang: “Mountain Lady Slipper.”

“We came through that,” my oldest brother demanded, surveying the vast swamp, “to see this?” He pointed at (yet another!) one of “dad’s funny looking plants.”

But today, I understand. Orchids are a fanatical genetic disposition in my family.

Judging roughly, the Crown of the Continent nourishes nearly 40 native species of orchidaceae – the Earth’s largest family of flowering plants. Of the world’s known 30,000 orchids, wild varieties inhabit every continent, with the exception of Antarctica. Notwithstanding glaciers and deserts, orchids grow in a surprisingly wide circumstance of climate and condition, a reassurance that such fragility may well withstand the pressures of a changing world.

Orchids growing in the Crown are likewise diverse in their worldy meanderings. Beginning in late April, dry-forest orchids such as Coral Roots (Corallorhiza), Fairy Slippers (Calypso bulbosa), Rattlesnake Plantains (Goodyera) and a few of the Rein orchids (Piperia and Platanthera) emerge from moist woodland loam, scattered beneath old-growth trees like fallen ornaments.

Nearby, some 15 species of bog orchids lurk in bug-filled wetlands, genera such as: Lady Tresses (Spiranthes) Twayblades (Listera), the Helleborines (Epipactis), as well as the Habenarias including Bog-candle (dilatata), Hillside Rein-orchids (elegans), and Frog-orchis (viridis).

Some, like Twayblades and Helleborines, prefer flowing waters. Then there is the exotic handful of Lady’s Slippers, representing the Cypripediums. These showy stalks throw out the most alien bloom --sprouting a white or yellow “shoe,” sporting purple veins and twisted lavender “lacings” –a conspicuously unlikely candidate for these mountainous surroundings.

Most orchids are balanced in a precarious and symbiotic relationship with microscopic fungi, but the perennial flowering of the Lady Slipper requires yet another intricate link to the world in order to survive and perpetuate: bees. And not just any bee. Some studies suggest that a single species is responsible for pollinating Cypripedium Montanum.

Perhaps those bees are impressed by the dazzling display of flora, or the nectar-like scent that slips from the shoe, sending out a deceptive invite for guests to dip in and take refreshment. Although the blossom presents a perfectly safe landing pad, the slick surface diverts visitors directly inside. Once there, with the promise of libations unfulfilled, guests are forced out through a back door. Above the small opening, anthers deposit pollen on the backs of bees, who busily return to exploring other slippers.

Today, I find myself doing much the same. Each spring, I slip out the back door, inclined to visit various clutches of orchids I’ve found in my almost half century of wandering the wilds of Montana.

Like going to check on the elderly neighbors, I’m always curious as to how they fared over the long winter. Perhaps that’s why I find myself revisiting what was once a single stalk of Cypripedium Montanum, found nearly 30 years ago, deep in the Mission Mountain Wilderness. Following dad’s direction, I pick a strand of beargrass, and imitate the bees’ bumbling, using the blade of grass to complete the pollination process by transferring dust from anther to stigma.

The next year there are two blossoms, and by the following six. Today more than 30 stalks grace the small creek-fed glen.

Driving Directions to Key Access Points

Drive safely and never, ever drive on orchids. It smushes them.

Key Access Points to this Garden or Arboretum

Best Places to Go

Montana’s orchids like fens and bogs and wetlands, but they also thrive in dry-upland forests and under evergreen canopies. Wet meadows are a good bet, as are dry benches above rivers flush with spring melt.

One of the hottest spots is in the lush Swan River Valley. More than two dozen species are found there, a few of which grow nowhere else in Montana. Try looking in the lowland bogs, near the river corridor.

The rest of western Montana – which is generally wetter than lands east of the Continental Divide – is home to 20 or so species of orchid, from showy Fairy Slippers to subtle Twayblades. About 23 species have been identified in Glacier National Park, with a dozen or so generally easy to spot. East of the divide, a dozen or more orchids live along the front range of the Rocky Mountains. There, they thrive in wild pockets that are protected from cattle and humans.

One of the best ways to find orchids is to join Steve Wirt on one of his adult field courses for Glacier Institute, in Glacier National Park. For over 30 years, Wirt has studied the mysteries of these “belly flowers” – which he named because you sometimes must get down on your belly to find and appreciate them. His classes offer an introduction not only to orchid identification but also to the ecology in which these most beautiful and secretive wildflowers thrive.

Wirt’s all-day field trips begin at 7:00 a.m., run until approximately 5 p.m., and emphasize the importance of protecting wildflower habitat.

Called “Glacier’s Orchids,” the classes begin at the Glacier Park Field Camp Meeting Hall before heading out. Participants should bring a sack lunch, snacks and water, as well as weather-appropriate clothing. The courses include a brief slide-show, as well as easy, short hikes, with some off-trail travel, but nothing rigorous. Cost is $100. For more information, visit

Orchids are delicate, and a misplaced boot can eliminate an entire clutch of flowers. Walk with care, and never, ever, pick the flowers. And to better enjoy your search, thumb through books such as “Plants of Waterton-Glacier National Parks,” by Richard J. Shaw and Danny On, or “Rocky Mountain Wild Flowers,” distributed by the National Museums of Canada. Guide books are handy at home, and on the trail, too.


Best Seasons or Dates to Visit

Late spring is the time to be looking for Montana’s secretive orchids, after the air warms but before the soils dry.

Nearby Places