2016 Native Orchid Conference field trips — Malaxis soulei — 2016-07-31 through 2016-08-05

This year’s Native Orchid Conference (NOC) symposium was held in Benson, Arizona from August 1 through August 4. Benson is in extreme southeast Arizona, in Cochise County, not far from the border with Mexico. It is conveniently situated within the numerous mountain ranges known as “sky islands”, all of which are located in the 1.78 million acres (7,200 km2) of the Coronado National Forest. These isolated ecosystems rise from the desert floor at around 3,500 feet (1,060 meters) to a height of nearly 10,500 feet (3,200 meters). Most of the orchid species that we photographed were found in the 6,000-8,000 foot (1,800-2,400 meter) range. As one would expect, the mountain roads are quite treacherous at best, with washed out areas, steep climbs, sheer drop offs, and hairpin curves. Some moderate hiking up the wet washes is required to see some of the species, and climbing over large boulders and loose soil is not for the faint-of-heart, especially at altitude. Some rattlesnakes were seen by the group members, but our group didn’t see any.

We encountered dozens of colorful wildflowers species — many of them were new to this eastern blogger. The orchids and other wildflowers spring forth with the onset of the summer monsoon rains in July and August. I’ll be covering these wildflowers in a separate blog post (or maybe two of them). But for now, I’ll be concentrating on showing you the wonderful orchids that inhabit these sky islands.

The first of these is Malaxis soulei or Chiricahua Adder’s-mouth orchid also known as Rat-tailed Malaxis. According to Ron Coleman (more about Ron, below) in his book, The Wild orchids of Arizona and New Mexico, it was named for a professor at the University of Wyoming, Justus F. Soule. The flowers are about 4 mm long by 2.5 mm wide — quite tiny. Ron goes on to state that the flowers are non-resupinate, meaning that the lip is uppermost, not lowermost as is found with most orchid species.

I was so excited to attend this NOC symposium, because there was the promise of seeing 7 or 8 different orchid species that were on my bucket list. Being situated so close to Mexico, this area is host to many species whose northernmost range is in southern Arizona. The symposium field trip planners did an excellent job in scouting out the areas where it would be possible to see these orchids. Many thanks go especially to Ron Coleman, Tucson native and long-time member of the NOC as well as Ben Rostron, Edmonton, Alberta, Canada native and current Vice-president of the organization. Ron is the author of two excellent orchid books: The Wild Orchids of California and The Wild Orchids of Arizona and New Mexico — so he is eminently qualified to show us the best places to find these rare orchids.

Chiricahua Adder's-mouth orchid
Chiricahua Adder’s-mouth orchid

Walter Ezell and I arrived in Benson a day early, hoping to attend a pre-conference field trip to the sky island of the Huachuca Mountains. This particular sky island is home to one of the rarer of the Malaxis species in Arizona, Malaxis corymbosa or Huachuca Mountain Adder’s-mouth orchid, which will be the subject of the next blog entry. However, there are also good populations of Malaxis soulei on the mountain.

Our trip up the mountain was quite exciting — well, that’s one word for it. We were joined on this field trip and the other conference field trips with Linnea Hanson, a friend and naturalist from Chico, California. As I mentioned the drive was a challenge. There are no guard rails on the twisty, gravel road, and the soil and rocks were quite loose, causing some problems with traction. There were many hairpin turns, and fortunately, we met only a single vehicle coming down the mountain. The plants we found were at about 6,000 feet (1,825 meters) elevation and scattered in open woods under Pinus ponderosa or Ponderosa Pine. Finding the plants was rather easy, since we were accompanied by a veteran orchid-hunter, Stefan Ambs from Silver Spring, Maryland. Stefan is one of the most talented orchid hunters I’ve ever accompanied in the field — I think he can actually “sniff” them out…

Here is a map of the Sky Islands of Southern Arizona © 2010 Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. I found the map in Frank S. Rose’s wonderful wildflower book, Mountain Wildflowers of Southern Arizona: A Field Guide to the Santa Catalina Mountains and Other Nearby Ranges. The red circles highlighting three sky islands and the locator for the city of Benson were added by your blogger.

Sky Islands in Southern Arizona

The first site we visited in the Huachuca Mountains was near one of the many campgrounds in the area. We walked the edges of a dry wash and soon, we were finding the orchids. The first one I found was one that turned out to be the tallest plant found during the conference. Although I didn’t measure it, I estimated that it was 12-15 inches (30-38 cm) tall. Not being familiar with the species, I was quite impressed with its size. There were probably as many as 400-500 or more flowers on the stem. Here are a few images of the plant and its flowers:

Chirichaua Adder's-mouth orchid

Chirichaua Adder's-mouth orchid Chirichaua Adder's-mouth orchid

Chirichaua Adder's-mouth orchid

Here is an image of the habitat for the orchid. According to Ron Coleman’s description, it consists of mixed or pure stands of oak, juniper, pine, and fir. It adapts to a wide range of soil moisture conditions from open, dry sites to grassy and mossy places in the forest. We found the plants on a rocky slope next to a dry wash:

Malaxis soulei habitat

We eventually found a couple of dozen specimens of this orchid in and around the wooded portions of the campground. After exhausting the search for plants at the first site, we traveled farther up the mountain road to another site. Here, we found several additional specimens under the Ponderosa Pines.

Our next search for this species was on August 4, our second field trip day. The site for these was in The Santa Catalina Mountains, again, near a campground. It required a short hike of about .25 miles (.4 km) to reach the site. This hike was led by Frank Rose, the author of the wildflower book mentioned earlier. Frank is 89 years old and can easily out-hike many of us. He took us to an open woods where we saw dozens of Malaxis soulei, many in nice groupings:

Malaxis soulei group

Here is an image of the same group from a different perspective:

Malaxis soulei group

Scattered here and there were several plants with very light-colored flowers, especially toward the bottom of the flower stem. Not being familiar with this orchid species, I’m not sure what causes the lack of chlorophyll in those flowers. Perhaps it is merely a mutation of some type. In any case, we found several plants of this odd color form:

Odd color form of Malaxis soulei

Chirichaua Adder's-mouth orchid Chirichaua Adder's-mouth orchid
Chirichaua Adder's-mouth orchid Chirichaua Adder's-mouth orchid

Our final stop was a roadside site where we parked and walked a short distance into an open woods and found about a dozen nice specimens of this orchid:

Malaxis soulei

Chirichaua Adder's-mouth orchid Chirichaua Adder's-mouth orchid

This was a perfect introduction of this orchid species to me. Apparently, it is one of the most common of the Malaxis species in southern Arizona, being found in many of the locations we visited. Each of us who participated in both the scheduled and unscheduled field trips were so appreciative of the difficult scouting work done by the field trip organizers. I’ve done this job myself, and I know the feeling that comes with not finding plants in full bloom or not finding them at all where they are expected to be. Orchids are like that — in large numbers sometimes and disappearing for long periods at other times. We were fortunate to see so many of them in full bloom — great timing with the conference field trips!

–Jim

13 comments


  • Great photography of these beautiful plants, as usual. We both headed west this summer…..how about that?

    August 08, 2016
  • John Fowler

    Excellent camera work, as always! Looks like you were near or in Chiricahua National Monument for part of your trip.

    August 08, 2016
    • Jim

      Yes, we were on the other side of the mountain from the Chiricahua National Monument. Wonderful scenery out there…

      August 08, 2016
  • Bo

    Fantastic pictures again, thanks for sharing your trip-findings.
    What is the weather condition in winter time at this site?

    August 08, 2016
    • Jim

      I suspect they gets a lot of snow, being between 6,000 and 10,000 feet in elevation. But that is just a guess…

      August 08, 2016
  • Wow! Lovely photos, as usual….now I wish I had gone!…just couldn’t imagine Arizona in August…bad enough here in Illinois! What a strange little orchid!

    August 08, 2016
  • Tony Willis

    What amazing plants,superbly shown. Thank you

    August 08, 2016
  • Becky

    Inspirational photographs, as usual! What a great trip- wonderful scenery, orchids and friends to enjoy.

    August 08, 2016
  • Pete Grube

    Great photos and blog as usual. The road you describe sounds like Carr Canyon Road which is quite nasty. I’ve only been to the end of it once on a birding jaunt, and someone else was driving. I’ve heard it has greatly improved from what it was 10 years ago though.

    August 08, 2016
  • sonnia hill

    Love them all.

    August 08, 2016
  • Ava Turnquist

    Spectacular! Thanks for sharing!

    August 08, 2016
  • Lee Casebere

    Very nice, Jim!! If that road you’re talking about is the Carr Canyon Road, that is on the scary side of things for my taste! The flowers on this species not only have a different color from top to bottom, but the lower flowers even have some lateral features that the top ones don’t seem to have. Interesting!

    August 09, 2016
  • Meng

    The close-up looks of this species is incredible!

    August 16, 2016

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