Cypripedium elegans Rchb.f. – An extremely rare species, seldom photographed and studied in its natural habitats. This author during the course of study was able to locate several habitats of the species from the region. The book, TERRESTRIAL ORCHIDS, presents the species in bloom, with its characteristics and habitat described in great detail and dimension.
Terrestrial. A small plant of about 6 to 8 cm in height from the alpine slopes. Stem and peduncle of the same length, stem stouter than the peduncle, both pubescent with the former thicker than the latter. Leaves two, arranged at the apex of the stem, opposite, orbicular to ovate, sessile, puberulosus, three to five veined, 2 to 3 cm long and 1 to 1.5 cm in width. Flower solitary at the apex of the scape.
Flower 1 to 1.5 cm across. Sepal unequal, dorsal ovate, arching puberulosus; the lateral pair united under the lip, broadly ovate. Petal lanceolate with almost round base, longer than the dorsal sepal, spreading diagonally with its apex curved out. Lip a saccate lobe, with three wavy long ridges on its upper surface, running from the base and converging around its apex, the surface around the ridges are with long laxly arranged hairs. Floral bract lanceolate, puberulosus, arising from behind the short horizontal ovary and diagonally arching over the flower.
Dorsal sepal brown with darker long broad lines converging on both sides. Lateral pale brown with irregular pinkish brown markings. Petals pale brown with dark brown base and many irregular streaks and markings of the same shade towards its apex. Lip rosy pink with dark pinkish irregular markings on the three ridges. Floral bract bright green. The puberulosus growths on the stem and peduncle shiny white.
A beautiful plant seldom photographed or even spotted from the alpine slopes. During my first high altitude flower hunt, the find of this species was my priority. Accompanied by my forest guard friend, we searched several places for this species mostly around the altitude King and Pantling mentioned in their monumental work. Our search went on for months without any trace of this species. As we searched every day and discussed this species both of us got obsessed about the species to the extend that we used to yell inside the forest, “Cypripedium elegans where are you?”With the summer at its peak and alpine meadows started appearing, I moved to higher altitudes for more finds. I was having hope in finding this species from somewhere during my survey.
One day, by the mid of my high alpine search, my vehicle got some technical fault and I was forced to travel along with another set of research students in their vehicle. Their destination of work on that day was in a place I had never worked before. They were there to build a green house to study the effect of climate change. Their work was on the side of a stream with heavy water flow. As we were there, I noticed a fallen huge Abies spectabilis tree across the stream. The length of the tree was more than that of the stream and was lying flat around 2 to 3 m in height above the water surface with both its bottom rooted portion and its apex firmly fixed to either sides of the stream, thus forming a natural bridge. I thought of crossing to the other side of the stream. But I, met with many discouraging advices from the colleagues. However, I took the risk of crossing the stream and went inside the adjoining deep forest. The nature of the terrain shows that the whole area was never visited by any humans or even cattle of the near by hamlet. Before I took a few steps inside the forest itself, I spotted a few plants, which I had already found from other locations. But the presence of two very rare orchids among them increased my curiosity many fold to go inside the forest and to do a detailed survey. I was aware that I might face much wildlife from that location. The choice was left with me to either move ahead or return. My life was always filled with curiosity to explore new places and I decided to go ahead. The entire region was of Rhododendrons of hardly 1.5 to 2 m in height. As I was negotiating through thickets of Rhododendrons, crawling under them, I found three plants of this species in bloom with two of them with fresh flowers. It was the most exiting moment of my entire orchid hunt; a plant, which was seldom found, was in front of me, that too in flower during my first visit to a new location. Usually it takes several visits to various locations to see plants in bloom. The plants were so small; I had to lie down flat on that wet and moist land to have a close look at it. It took several hours to make drawings and documentations of this species. But it was worth a deal, probably that was the first time this species was documented the same way I did on that day. I was aware that those photographs of the species would be a referral photograph for many in the years to come around the globe, hence put more efforts with different lighting techniques. By that time my friends completed their work and wanted to return and were yelling and screaming at me to return. I came to the edge of the stream and asked them to return and said that I will follow later. However, to my surprise no one from that team wanted to know what the rarity I got that made me stay back on a dangerous forested place all by myself. I was taken aback by their indifference. I settled there for another 3 more hours with those two plants in bloom and produced this wonderful photograph.
The day ended memorably with a great find of a rare species and another memorable walk of around 4 hours through those winding roads of the Himalayas to reach my base camp under the darkness of a moonless night.
King, G. & Pantling, R. (1898). The Orchids of the Sikkim-Himalayas. Ann. Roy. Bot. Garden. (Calcutta). Cypripedium elegans Reichb., Page no 341.