It is always enjoyable to share a new discovery even if it is a common thing that one should have seen before now. I was doing some recent field work south of Merritt in Douglas Fir forests. I was with botanist Kristi Iverson as I was nosing around in the understory of pinegrass (Calamagrostis rubescens.) I noticed several individual stalks of a tall, slender orchid that was unfamiliar to me, but Kristi quickly identified it as the Alaska rein-orchid (Piperia unalascensis) and introduced me to its delightful scent. You have to lean close but it is a very worthwhile experience. Some references claim that it has a disagreeable ammonia smell but it did not appear that way to me. It is also known as slender spire orchid or short-spurred rein-orchid or Alaska orchid in some references. There is a similar species known as the elegant rein-orchid (Piperia elegans) but the spur of the flower is longer than the lip formed by the lower petal. It is also found in the southern part of B.C.
So why have I not noticed this lovely plant before? Perhaps it is its retiring colour that blends in well with the grasses, or perhaps the fact that it dries off relatively early in the season and is even less noticeable, I am not sure. But what are some facts about this rein-orchid? Well, it is quite widely-distributed in the province as shown by this map from E-flora, as well as into eastern Canada and areas of the USA.
The range description from E-flora is as follows : dry to moist coniferous forests, grassy slopes, meadows, thickets and streambanks in the lowland, steppe and montane zones; frequent throughout BC south of 56 degrees N, especially east of the Coast-Cascade Mountains; N to AK, E to NF and S to MI, SD, NM, UT, NV and CA; Baja CA.
The species name unalascensis refers to the island of Unalaska in the Aleutian chain. You will see it spelled unalaschensis in the popular field guide “Plants of the Southern Interior & Inland Northwest” but all of the references I have otherwise found use unalascensis. Its genera has been known under a number of synonyms such as Habenaria, Platanthera and Spiranthes.
So when you are next in the woods, watch closely for this delicate species before it becomes more obscure. bend closely to catch the scent and enjoy another of our less obvious delicacies.