This section is from the book "The Native Flowers And Ferns Of The United States ", by Thomas Meehan. Also available from Amazon: The Native Flowers and Ferns of the United States in Their Botanical, Horticultural, And Popular Aspects.
Scape six to eight inches high, bearing a single large flower at top and sheathed with several bracts. Leaf broad-ovate, smooth veined, one to two inches long. Flower near the size of Cypripedium, variegated with purple and yellow, the lip the most conspicuous part, bearing two projecting points beneath the apex. (Wood's Class-Book of Botany. See also Gray's Manual of the Botany of the Northern United States.)
THE curious tribe of Orchidaceae, to which the Calypso be-longs, is not only remarkable for the many odd forms the flowers assume, but also for peculiarities of behavior which have puzzled the most acute observers to explain. In many families of plants there are distinct lines of relationship that can be distinctly traced between one genus or another; but in Orchidaceae there are often what appear to be huge gaps, and the families seem wholly alone. Modern doctrines demand that all plants should at some time in the past have been evolved from parents but slightly differing from them. If this be true, the isolation suggests that innumerable species of orchids must have appeared, have lived forages perhaps, and have been destroyed, leaving these very lonely genera as the survivors, as if by some lucky accident. One of these fortunate circumstances is believed by some botanists to be the aid which they receive through cross-fertilization by insect aid, and to which plan orchids in general are particularly adapted. It is supposed that by this system of cross-fertilization a race is rendered more vigorous, and thus able to endure longer than if each individual continually used its own pollen, or, as it is termed, practises self-fertilization. In many cases, orchids would not be able to perfect seeds at all, if they had not the aid of insects in introducing the pollen to the stigma. But again, it has been noticed as singular that though the individual plant may have matured innumerable seeds, yet they rarely grow when in a state of nature, and just about as many plants and no more are found in the same locations year after year, the plant making but one new tuber in the place of the one decaying from the last season. A locality soon disappears if collectors of wild flowers abound. The seed, therefore, in many cases, is of very little use to the orchid after all the trouble that has been taken to secure for it the supposed best advantage.
Our Calypso is a good illustration of some of these points. It has no very near relatives, though Linnaeus supposed that it was a Cypripedium, and it is found noticed as Cypripedium boreale in his works and the works of others of that time. Its real relationship, however, is with Coelogyne, a genus inhabiting the warmer parts of the East Indies. Its closest relations in this country are perhaps Liparis, or Microstylis, and we see by this comparison how isolated Calypso must be, especially when we learn that instead of a warm sub-tropical climate, in which most of the Coelogyne are found, this one exists only in the extreme north of our country, and Lapland and Russia, in the extreme north of Europe. Again, it is remarkable for being often found only as an isolated plant here and there. The botanist is as likely to find only a single one in a day's walk as a large number together. This isolation has been the subject of some lines by a well-known botanist, Mr. W. W. Bailey, of Providence, Rhode Island, which, as we love to note especially all attempts to place American plants in the "Language of Flowers," are reproduced here:
" Calypso, goddess of an ancient time, (I learn it not from any Grecian rhyme, And yet the story I can vouch is true.) Beneath a pine tree lost her dainty shoe.
" No workmanship of mortal can compare With what's exhibited in beauty there,
And looking at the treasure 'neath the tree, The goddess' self I almost hope to see.
" The tints of purple and the texture fine, The curves of beauty shown in every line, With fringes exquisite of golden hue, Perfect the wonders of the fairy shoe.
" The goddess surely must have been in haste, Like Daphne fleeing when Apollo chased, And leaving here her slipper by the way, Intends to find it on another cay:
"And will she come to seek it here or no ? The day is lengthening, but I cannot go, Until I see her bring the absent mate Of this rare beauty, though the time is late.
" I watch, but still no classic form I see, Naught but the slipper 'neath the forest tree; And so, for fear of some purloining elf, The precious relic I secure myself."
When, however, the plant is found in a spot it loves, the botanist need not dally till the day is spent, and then be rewarded by one only "dainty shoe." A correspondent of the writer, Mr. C. C. Pringle, under date of April 30th, 1879, remarks: "There is a good deal of Calypso scattered over northern Vermont and adjacent regions. I have never found it except under the protection of Thuja Occidentalis (which form the so-called Cedar-Swamps in the north). In these cedar-swamps it is at home where the trees are the oldest and largest. Where the shade is so dense that not even the mosses have strength to crawl over the surface; often near dark and slow-flowing streams, but in situations never, I think, overflowed; in the black and ever moist and cool mould, formed from the decaying fragments of the cedars, this exquisite little beauty lifts her modest head, and, like Aplectrum, its leaf is hyemal, appearing in October, and dying away at the beginning of the succeeding summer. Its flower bud is well developed in autumn, and thus the plant flowers as early as the last of May, or with the apple trees."
It was from the plant's solitary habit, blooming alone in beauty away from all her floral sisters, that its name Calypso was suggested, she being a beautiful nymph, according to ancient story, and the Goddess of Silence. It is related of Ulysses that he was for twenty years a wanderer over the earth. He was wrecked on an island called Ogygia; and here in this strange, silent place, the exact locality of which, as the poet intended, is not even now known, he found the beautiful Calypso. The story of Ulysses' departure from the charms of the goddess, in spite of all her alluring entreaties to remain, is a very attractive one; and might be regarded as something more than a mere fable when a cool-headed modern botanist, under the guise of verse, tells us he tarried long under the forest trees in the hope of finding merely the damsel's shoe!
As to locality, it was at one time thought to be very rare in the United States. When Dr. Torrey wrote the "Natural History of the State of New York," only three localities were known, - one in Jefferson and one in Lewis counties, of that State, and the other in Vermont; but since that time Parry, Hall, Brandegee and others have found it not uncommon in damp woods in the Rocky Mountains, and it is likely to be found much more common as we travel northwest, which is in the direction of its central home. It is not always confined to low damp places. A writer in the Gardeners Monthly, for 1869, finds it near Ottawa, in Canada, "in a slight depression on the top of a limestone ridge, the highest ground in the vicinity, sparsely covered with white pine. The plants were growing in turnovers, as they are commonly called in Canada, that is, in the holes caused by the tearing up of the roots and super-incumbent earth when forest trees are up-rooted by the storms. The leaves of the pines having collected in these holes, and decayed there, have formed a rich vegetable mould, covering to the depth of five or six inches the broken fragments of limestone left in the hole." This little sketch is very interesting as showing the nice conditions under which the seeds may occasionally grow, for it is reasonable to suppose that under the circumstances related, they originated there from seed.
Plant yields seeds very abundantly; almost every Mower produces a perfect seed-vessel. In the 3d Vol. of the "Botanical Gazette" a correspondent refers especially to the ease with which this species produces seed-vessels. The plant is an annual, and is usually dead, or nearly so, before October. In the correspondent's case the plants had been mown off in the summer, and as is usual with annuals under such circumstances, had its life prolonged in consequence. Instead of being nearly dry, these October plants were blooming freely, but without petals in most cases. The few which had petals, never developed beyond the calyx, which kept them closed. But the stigmas protruded through the closed mass of petals, evidently without receiving any pollen on their stigmatic surfaces. Still they produced full-sized capsules, though with no perfect seed in them. The case is worthy of further investigation.