(April 26 update: Seattle Parks has agreed to put up temporary fencing around the orchid for the event. Read on…)
Part of what makes these wild orchids so noteworthy is their rarity. Lincoln Park, where they were first discovered in 1937 by Sister Mary Milburge, is the only place they grow in Seattle, and one of only two locations in King County. Documentation can be found at the Burke Museum.
A unique characteristic of the phantom orchid is that it has no leaves, and produces no chlorophyll.
What really sets these amazing plants apart is how they grow. Since they don’t photosynthesize, they have to get their nutrition elsewhere. They grow on an underground fungus. That fungus is attached to a tree root. So, you can’t just dig one up and transplant it at home. It will die.
Finally, they can remain dormant for up to 17 years before deciding to rise up and bloom again.
These rare, fragile, amazing plants will survive, and maybe even thrive – if we let them. But in the middle of a busy city park, their survival is far from a given. Obvious dangers are off leash dogs, mowing, people walking off trail – and even a child, entranced by its beauty, who decides it would be a nice flower to pick for Mom or Dad. The phantom orchids have existed thus far because their locations are somewhat off the beaten path.
However, some of the locations (six were documented last year) are actually very close to a lot of human activity. One was discovered near the North Play Area in Lincoln Park, right where an unannounced “cable ride” was scheduled to be installed in the summer of 2016. When we noticed the unexpected construction, we contacted Seattle Parks and Recreation immediately and informed them of the orchid location. Thankfully, those in charge of the installation were able to move the cable ride a few yards away – but the orchid is still at risk, as this is now a much more heavily used area.
While the construction was still under way, the Seattle Nature Alliance and Friends of Lincoln Park proposed the establishment of a small Natural Area, complete with signage, to protect the orchid – and actually serve as an educational opportunity for the families visiting this popular area of the park. We sent the proposal to Seattle Parks and Recreation several times. We have received no response.
On May 5th, there will be a large gathering of community members and dignitaries at the renovated North Play Area in Lincoln Park for the signing of Seattle’s Urban Bird Treaty. This is a very big deal, and there will likely be many people there.
Without protection, it is almost certain that one or several people will stand on, trample, or crush the phantom orchid that will be just emerging there. Here’s what it looked like last year – its survival in a tough place like that was simply stunning:
Maybe we’ll hear back on our proposal by then. Plenty of time. We have 11 days.