The rare White Adder’s Mouth orchid is the smallest and rarest orchid in Colorado. (photo courtesy Pam Smith)

Tiny orchid is hard to find

Normally orchids are associated with tropical climes, but a surprising number
of orchids—at least 25—call Colorado home. The smallest, at 3 inches, is the White
Adder’s Mouth orchid, or Malaxis monophyllos var. brachypoda. This beauty has only been recorded a handful of times in Colorado, mostly in Boulder County, making it one of our rarest orchids.

With one of the smallest flowers in the orchid family—barely larger than an asterisk *—the White Adder’s Mouth is pollinated by the equally small fungus gnat. It doesn’t like warm weather and sometimes stays underground. Its small size and translucent green color make it hard to spot, says Pam Smith, botanist with the Colorado Natural Heritage Program (CNHP).

David Anderson, director of the CNHP, says it was first discovered in Colorado near Green Mountain Falls, El Paso County, in 1895 (though never again seen in the area). The first sighting and collection in Boulder County was on July 9, 1906, on the north slopes of Green Mountain, which is just west of Boulder. It wasn’t seen there again until 1978. The most recent confirmed sighting in Boulder County was in 1989.

In 2010, Smith went out on a survey in Jefferson County and found it. “We realized this hadn’t been seen in so many years, and it’s so small you barely could see it. It’s one of the hardest plants I’ve ever had to look for. It was a thrilling moment, we were jumping up and down…not on the plants!”

Botanists are still hoping the plant hasn’t gone extinct in Boulder County, says Anderson. “There is plenty of suitable habitat in Boulder County, so we hope it might be there somewhere.”
If you do find it, treat it with care, he adds. “Don’t dig it up; you can be the biggest orchid nerd in the world and you will not be able to grow this in your yard. It needs to be in its habitat. Take a picture, try not trample anything and please call us. ”

—Amy Gosch