The Genus Epipactis

The Genus Epipactis has 35 species. Only one specie is native to North America, Epipactis gigantea, however Epipactis helleborine has naturalized from Europe.

Epipactis gigantea or Stream Orchid

Epipactis gigantea - Gaint Helleborine, or Stream Orchid - is a native orchid to Washington State. The Epipactis gigantea gets the botanical name gigantea from the large size of the flower compared to the others in this genus. Not its overall plant size.

This species may be grown in a bed or rock garden containing leaf mold and peat. It can be grown in either sun or shade. The soil must be alkaline and wet, especially during the growing season. The plants are frost hardy and should be kept moist throughout the year. To propagate, divide the plants during the spring.

This terrestrial orchid arises from a rhizome. It grows along gravelly shores of lakes, rivers, in seepage areas and sand bars in rivers and streams. The distribution is British Columbia and south to California and New Mexico. The stem is smooth and hairless. The four to twelve light green leaves are pleated and lance shaped. The leaves are alternating and 10 inches long. The flowers are borne among leaf-like bracts near the top of the stem. Flowers can number up to 15. The flowers are a blend of yellowish green and flushed with purple on the sepals. Petals are broad with brownish purple veining. The lip has a white mid-lobe with a brown and yellow callus at its base. A white flower form can occasionally found. The flower is shaped like an open mouth with an outthrust tongue.

The Epipactis gigantea is pollinated by flower flies which land on the front half of the lip to sip nectar from the rear half. As the fly leaves, they brush first against the stigma on the underside of the column, then against a gummy flap and finally against the crumbly pollinia- picking up grains of pollen to carry to the stigma of the next flower.

Epipactis gigantea has two color variations:
  • Epipactis gigantea forma citrina: Flowers yellow.
  • Epipactis gigantea forma rubrifolia: Leaves dark red. Flowers suffused with dark red.
  • Height: 1 to 4 feet tall
  • Flower Size: 1 ½ to 2 ½ in wide
  • Blooms: March to August

Photos courtesy of: © Melissa Rathbun & Tina Taylor: $8 Mountain, Oregon

Photos courtesy of: © Melissa Rathbun: Port Angeles, WA

Epipactis helleborine or Broad-Leaved Helleborine

Epipactis helleborine is also known as the Broad-Leaved Helleborine. This terrestrial orchid is not native to Washington State but Europe. This orchid was first found in New York in 1878. Over the hundred plus years, it has naturalized from New York west to California, Oregon and Washington. It seeds itself readily, especially in disturbed areas and some botanists may regard this plant an "invasive weed". It is not known whether this plant came to the New World by accident or was purposely brought by European immigrants as a garden plant. Epipactis helleborine grows from an underground rhizome a foot or more below the soil surface. This orchid can be found growing in coniferous and deciduous forests, wood meadows and exposed locations and in calcareous soils or debris. The nodding flowers are yellow-green in color and are usually suffused with a light rosy pink to purple. The lip of the flower is a small pouch which gives the plant the common name "Poor Man's Lady’s slipper". The 3 to 10 leaves are lance shape and alternate on the stem. The distribution is Europe, Eastern North America, Oregon, Washington, British Columbia and Montana.

Epipactis helleborine has four color variations:
  • Epipactis helleborine forma alba: Flowers white.
  • Epipactis helleborine forma luteola: Flowers yellow.
  • Epipactis helleborine forma monotropodies: Albino form: plant and flowers are white.
  • Epipactis helleborine forma variegata: Varigated form.
  • Height: 3 to 30 inches tall
  • Flower size: ½ to ¾ inch wide
  • Blooms: July to August

Photos courtesy of: © Melissa Rathbun, Chuckanut Drive, WA