Plant Species of San Jacinto Mountain:
The Voucher Misdetermined as Cephalanthera austiniae, Phantom Orchid


The only evidence for the Phantom Orchid, Cephalanthera austiniae, existing at San Jacinto Mountain is a single voucher from the year 1908. Unfortunately, because we would have loved to find it here, it turns out that voucher was misdetermined. The voucher actually was of Corallorhiza maculata, spotted coralroot, our common orchid of the dry areas at high elevations at San Jacinto Mountain.

Introduction and Results

Fig. 1. Pictures of the Phantom Orchid, Cephalanthera austiniae, taken by Keir Morse at Yosemite National Park on July 1, 2005, and reproduced here by permission. Unfortunately, this species does not appear to occur at San Jacinto Mountain.
Click on the pictures to go to the Calphotos pages for them.

We, and others, have long been dying to see the Phantom Orchid, Cephalanthera austiniae at San Jacinto Mountain, vouchered from dry ridge s. Round Valley on July 12, 1908, by F.M. Reed #2516. Who wouldn't want to see a beautiful orchid with that great common name?

The Phantom Orchid is appropriately named, the name deriving from its pure white stem and flowers emerging out of pine duff in dappled shade of the forest, creating a ghost-like appearance; see Fig. 1.

The Phantom Orchid acts like a phantom, too, appearing and disappearing irregularly:

Within each area of its occurrence, the numbers of C. austinae vary greatly from year to year. ...the phantom orchid can lie dormant underground for years before reappearing.
Coleman, The Wild Orchids of California, p. 41

In addition to the wonderful common name, the Phantom Orchid is a beautiful orchid; see Fig. 1.

We have conducted three specific searches, spanning 10 years, for the Phantom Orchid in the voucher locality in the terrain south of Round Valley, on 21 August 2007, 1 August 2008, and 5 July 2017. On the first two searches, we were accompanied by other sharp-eyed botanists, greatly increasing our odds of spotting the Phantom Orchid if it was present here during our survey. In addition, we have worked on the flora of the high elevations of San Jacinto Mountain for 15 years, doing over 244 full day botanical surveys there. We never found any orchid in dry areas at high elevations at San Jacinto Mountain other than Corallorhiza maculata, spotted coralroot, our common orchid of such areas.

During all that time, we never even entertained the notion that the voucher from San Jacinto Mountain could have been misdetermined, since pictures show the orchids to be easily distinguished at a glance. We attributed our lack of seeing the Phantom Orchid at San Jacinto Mountain to its phantom-like nature of perhaps not appearing in most years. Although most of the years during this period had poor rainfall, we observed a number of Corallorhiza maculata plants during that period.

However, after the third search came up empty, combined with the fact that no one else had ever seen this species at San Jacinto Mountain, we began to look more into this voucher. In particular, Harvey Monroe Hall fairly extensively surveyed the pine belt of San Jacinto Mountain for his 1902 Flora of that area, and he never found it.

First, we checked the other collections made by Reed on that date, to make sure he was actually at San Jacinto Mountain. They checked out; Reed traveled from Tahquitz Valley (collections #2511, #2512) to Hidden Lake (= Lake Surprise, #2515), to Round Valley (the Phantom Orchid Voucher #2516), and then San Jacinto Peak (#2517, #2519).

Second, we checked out Reed's route to make sure his locality was consistent with his route. Reed's route from Hidden Lake to the Peak almost surely was similar to the current trails of Willow Creek Trail and the Round Valley High Trail that lead to San Jacinto Peak, so our searches were indeed in his locality for the Phantom Orchid voucher.

Third, we looked at other vouchers of the Phantom Orchid from California. We immediately found a problem that cast suspicion on this voucher. The highest elevation voucher of the Phantom Orchid from a search of the Consortium of California Herbaria is 2104 m = 6900 feet. Furthermore, the only vouchers in southern California are at elevations of 4700 and 6000 feet. The Round Valley Meadow is at 9000 feet, and the ridge south of Round Valley is higher in elevation, extending up to 9384 feet!

Suddenly it looked quite plausible that the voucher somehow was misdetermined.

We sent a request for a scan of the voucher at UC, and Andrew S. Doran kindly sent us a high-resolution scan of the voucher in a timely manner. A portion of the scan of the voucher is shown in Fig. 2, sandwiched between scans of vouchers from the San Diego Natural History Museum synoptic collection for Cephalanthera austiniae and Corallorhiza maculata.

Cephalanthera austiniae from Hot Springs Mountain, San Diego County The UC123564 voucher from San Jacinto Mountain Corallorhiza maculata from the Hot Springs Mountain quadrangle.
Fig. 2. Portions of scans of vouchers of Cephalanthera austiniae, SD133868 (left); UC123564 (middle); and Corallorhiza maculata, SD119588 (right), all at the same scale. The buds are just opening on the flowers in the portion of the UC123564 voucher shown above, and the spots on the corolla lip are visible (two have been circled; see a bud just opening and showing the same spots in Ron Wolf's photograph.)
Click on the pictures for larger versions.

The UC123564 voucher is clearly of Corallorhiza maculata, not Cephalanthera austiniae. The buds / flowers / ovaries of the UC123564 voucher are the same size, color and shape as the SD119588 voucher of Corallorhiza maculata, different in every way from the buds / flowers / ovaries of Cephalanthera austiniae; the corolla lip has the spots of Corallorhiza maculata; and the rhizome has the many, short, scaly, coral-like branches which gives coralroot its common name. (There are fully open loose flowers in the UC123564 voucher, too, used for the size comparison.)

We can only speculate why this voucher may have been misdetermined. It could have been because the fruit is pendant for Corallorhiza maculata but erect for Cephalanthera austiniae, and because the person doing the determination applied that difference to a plant in bud. We have many pictures of erect buds for Corallorhiza maculata at San Jacinto Mountain, also seen in these Calphotos pix by Br. Alfred Brousseau and by Charles Webber.

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Copyright © 2017 by Tom Chester and Dave Stith.
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Updated 21 July 2017.