Cephalanthera austiniae is a perennial orchid commonly called the phantom orchid due to the pure white coloration of the stem and flowers, which is indicative of the absence of chlorophyll. The genus Cephalanthera is derived from the Greek words cephos, head and anthos, anther, which refers to the position of the anther above the stigma in the flower (Clark, 1976). The stem has leaf-like bracts and can exceed 38 cm. in height, and bear over 25 flowers each about 2 cm. across. The flowers are white, subsessile, three-lobed, and hinged towards the middle with golden-yellow marking on the lower lobe. They are slightly cupped in appearance since they do not open fully, and they give off a sweet scent which resembles vanilla. The plants have rhizomes with thick fibrous roots, and the fruit is a round capsule that starts out pure white like the rest of the plant and darkens quickly with age (Coleman, 1995).
Cephalanthera austiniae is a myco-heterotroph that derives all of its food through a parasitic relationship with mycorrhizal fungi. Phantom orchids depend on fungal strands that grow into their roots and they subsist on sugars processed by the fungus. This relationship between orchid and fungi is not “mutualistic” since the fungi apparently receive no benefit (Bruns et al., 1997); (Rasmussen, 1995); (Coleman, 1995).
Cephalanthera austiniae is insect pollinated. The column is simple, with no rostellum (a projection on the stigma), and the stigma is sticky so that when insects enter the flower and probe for nectar, they brush against the stigma and leave with pollen stuck to their bodies. Insects deposit the pollen in the next flower visited, effectively pollinating the plants. These plants tend to grow with many other species of orchids that have similar habitat needs. Cypripedium fasciculatum, Listera convallarioides, Platanthera dilatata, Calypso bulbosa, Goodyeara oblonifolia, and several species of Piperia are some of the orchids known to grow alongside Cephalanthera austiniae (Coleman, 1995).
Regularity: Regularly occurring
Regularity: Regularly occurring
Global Range: Idaho, Washington, Oregon and California. Olympic Mts. and Cascade Range.
Cephalanthera austiniae is a native of western North America and it is found in the Olympics and Cascade Ranges, High Sierra Nevada, San Francisco Bay Area, n Outer South Coast Ranges, San Bernardino Mountains, and Peninsular Ranges; to British Columbia (Heller, 2012). It occurs in British Columbia, Washington, Oregon, California, and western Idaho at elevations between 0-6,000 feet (Calflora, 2012); (USDA, 2012).
Comments: Dense moist coniferous forests especially in the mountains.
Cephalanthera austiniae occurs in temperate moist to dry mixed-evergreen and coniferous forests, such as red fir and yellow pine forests (Heller, 2012). This plant favors habitat that is open and shaded near or above small streams and rivers. It frequently inhabits moist bottom-lands or dry wooded slopes. Cephanlanthera austiniae is known to grow under shrubs or at the edges of clearings in nearly full sun. Coastal populations may grow in forests that border beach sand dunes (Coleman, 1995). Cephalanthera austiniae requires mineral soils farily rich in nutrients and blooms in early March to August. The number of plants occuring in established populations varies yearly, and plants may remain dormant underground for sevaral years (Coleman, 1995); (Heller, 2012).
Number of Occurrences
Note: For many non-migratory species, occurrences are roughly equivalent to populations.
Estimated Number of Occurrences: 21 - 80
Comments: Many small populations.
Life History and Behavior
Evolution and Systematics
Cephalanthera austiniae belongs to the family Orchidaceae, the largest family of monocotyledons with 750 genera and 30,000 species distributed throughout the world. The genus Cephalanthera consists of 15 species that occur primarily in the Northern Hemisphere (Coleman, 1995). Cephalanthera austiniae belongs to the subfamily Epidendroideae, the tribe Neottieae, and the subtribe Limodorinae. Epidendroideae are sister to the subfamily Orchidoideae. No clear consensus has been reached as to how the tribes of Epidendroideae are related to each other (Cameron, 2006).
Through parsimony analysis of DNA sequences from plastid genes atpB and rbcL a phylogenetic tree was reconstructed for 173 genera of Orchidaceae. According to this analysis, Cephalanthera shares common ancestry with the genera Listera and Epipactis (Cameron, 2006).
National NatureServe Conservation Status
Rounded National Status Rank: N2 - Imperiled
Rounded National Status Rank: NNR - Unranked
NatureServe Conservation Status
Rounded Global Status Rank: G4 - Apparently Secure
Reasons: Widespread but small populations; moderate threats, mostly from logging.
Cephalanthera austiniae is considered to be rare by some, though it can be locally abundant. It has a global status ranking of G4 meaning "apparently secure". In Canada, this orchid was red listed and added to the threatened species list in 2000. The conservation status of C. austiniae in Idaho is S3 (venerable), and in British Columbia S2 (imperiled). It is considered to be widespread with small populations, and is moderately threatened mainly due to logging activities (NatureServe, 2011).
Comments: Logging often on timber sales.
The orchid is native to the western United States (California, Oregon, Washington and Idaho), and to British Columbia, Canada. Cephalanthera austiniae is the only species of genus Cephalanthera native to the Western Hemisphere.
Cephalanthera austiniae is a distinctive plant, rising from the dark, moist forest floor on waxy white stems and bearing orchid blossoms which are white or yellowish with yellow centers. Its leaves, if present, are rudimentary since such structures are not needed for collecting sunlight.
The plant is becoming more scarce as its habitat, dense, isolated forest, becomes more rare.
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