E-Flora BC: Electronic Atlas of the Flora of British Columbia

Cephalanthera austiniae (A. Gray) A. Heller
phantom orchid
Orchidaceae (Orchid family)

Introduction to Vascular Plants

© Dane Springmeyer  Email the photographer   (Photo ID #4725)

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Distribution of Cephalanthera austiniae
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The phantom orchid is a perennial, rhizomatous species that grows primarily in shade on rich soils (Wilkens and Jennings 1993) in mixed and coniferous mature and old-growth forests. In North America, it is found in British Columbia, Washington, Oregon, Idaho and California (USDA 2010). In BC, it is reported as "rare in the lower Fraser Valley, SE Vancouver Island and the Gulf Islands" (Douglas et al. 2001). In these areas, plants have been observed along foot paths, beside deer trails, and in deer beds, often on calcareous sites.

This is a distinctive species of wild orchid. It is almost totally white with a noticeably reflexed yellow lip. Leaves are bract-like and mostly sheath the stems. Flowers are in a terminal raceme of 5 to 20. The flowering period is long: the earliest reported flowering date for the phantom orchid in BC is May 7th, and plants have been observed in flower as late as early August in the Saanich area. There is a flowering specimen in the UBC herbarium from the Agassiz area dated August 1926, collected by Herbert Ross. Here at the northern tip of its range in North America, capsule production is rare. However, when present, seeds are minute and dust-like. Research has shown that this is a mycoheterotrophic species involved in a three-way mutualism with fungi in the Thelophoraceae and an unknown tree species (Taylor and Bruns 1997). Health of the fungal and tree partners is critical to survival of the orchid (Taylor 2003, pers. comm.).

Species Information

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Perennial, saprophytic herb from branched, creeping rhizomes; stems 20-55 cm tall; plant white, turning yellowish or brownish, smooth.
Bractlike, 2 to 5, mostly sheathing stem, 3-6 cm long.
Inflorescence a terminal raceme of 5 to 20 white flowers; sepals and lateral petals alike, elliptical to oblanceolate, 12-20 mm long, tips pointed; lateral petals usually longer than lip; lip saclike, with a yellow, pimpled gland within at the base, folded lengthwise, constricted at midlength, with a terminal lobelike portion above, the lobe bent back above middle; column 6-9 mm long.
Capsules, erect.

Source: The Illustrated Flora of British Columbia

Habitat / Range

Moist to mesic forests in the lowland zone; rare in the lower Fraser Valley, SE Vancouver Island and the Gulf Islands; S to ID and CA.

Source: The Illustrated Flora of British Columbia

Additional Notes

Infrequent capsule production in this species in BC is likely a result of its occurrence here at the northern limits of its range in North America, and associated pollinator limitation. Hand pollinated plants have been reported to produce capsules.


The climate type for this species, as reported in the: "British Columbia plant species codes and selected attributes. Version 6 Database" (Meidinger et al. 2008), is not evaluated, unknown or variable.

Synonyms and Alternate Names

Eburophyton austiniae (A. Gray) A. Heller

Taxonomic and Nomenclatural Links

Additional Photo Sources

Species References

Douglas, G.W., D.V. Meidinger and J. Pojar (editors). 2001. Illustrated Flora of British Columbia. Volume 7: Monocotyledons (Orchidaceae Through Zosteraceae). B.C. Ministry of Sustainable Resource Management and B.C. Ministry of Forests. Victoria.

Taylor, Lee. 2003. Personal communication on Phantom Orchid and fungal partner ecology. University of Alaska Fairbanks.

Taylor D. L. & Bruns T. D. 1997. Independent, specialized invasions of ectomycorrhizal mutualism by two nonphotosynthetic orchids. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA 94:4510-4515.

Wilkens, Dieter H. and William F. Jennings. 1993. Cephalanthera austiniae In: Hickman, James C. 1993. The Jepson Manual: Higher Plants of California. University of California Press.In: Hickman, James C. 1993. The Jepson Manual: Higher Plants of California. University of California Press.

General References