Monique Keiran: Less is more for Calypso orchid’s perfume

During a recent walk through John Dean Provincial Park, Nature Boy encountered his first Calypso orchid of the year.

He was so excited, he called the rest of us back to crowd around and join the admiration parade. He dusted off his annual Calypso orchid lecture: blah, blah, blah, and so on and so forth.

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I’d long thought this little orchid with its spiky purple flower was named for the Greek nymph Calypso, whose youth, beauty and — ahem — other charms waylaid wayward Greek hero Odysseus for umpteen years on his way homeward after the siege of Troy.

The orchid’s other names similarly hint at ability to beguile and enchant. Venus lady’s slipper, fairy slipper… the names for this wee flower imply a big reputation.

But apparently the plant is called Calypso for a much more prosaic and literal reason. Calypso means concealment, and this orchid favours sheltered areas on conifer forest floors. It lives in a co-dependency with the evergreens and the mycorrhizal fungi that help the trees’ — and the orchid’s — roots absorb nutrients from the soil. In fact, if you try to dig it up and transplant it to your garden, you’ll kill it. It doesn’t survive without its fungi friends.

And then Nature Boy announced the start of the day’s real entertainment: “The flower’s perfume is sublime, but faint. You have to get right down and stick your nose real close to it.”

He demonstrated. He dropped to his knees, planted his hands wide to either side of Lady Calypso and lowered his nose.

The Calypso orchid is a small — nay, a tiny — plant. It consists of one or two broad, roundish leaves, with a thin stalk at most 10 centimetres tall. Bobbing at the end of the stalk is the purple headdress and speckled slipper-pouch of the flower.

As Nature Boy’s head sank toward the flower, another much broader part of his body turned skyward.

A couple of audible sniffs later, he rose. Then he insisted we each experience the orchid’s wondrous perfume for ourselves — the true start of summer, he said.

And so, one by one, we dutifully dropped down and levered forward, six adults taking turns to lower our noses towards the dirt and raise our butts toward the sky.

What a shame I left my camera at home.

The scent of the Calypso orchid is indeed faint. In fact, it’s downright elusive. Out of three or four sniffs that practically seal the flower to the nostril, one, maybe two sniffs might — might — uncover its perfume.

But that elusiveness is perhaps why the orchid’s perfume is so sublime.

Nobody enjoys enduring cloying miasmas a la Charles Schulz’s Pig-Pen, even if the clouds of perfume are, in normal circumstances and much smaller quantities, pleasant enough. And these days, the wearing of any kind of scent is discouraged and frowned upon.

I am thankful for this. It’s increasingly unlikely I will empty my wallet to attend a concert or a play or any other kind of entertainment at the Royal or McPherson Theatre only to be chased from my seat by a swarm of scent molecules enveloping the person on the other side of the armrest.

When it comes to scent, less is indeed more, no matter how the perfume companies try to persuade us otherwise.

Indeed, the costly, full-colour, smell-o-rama scent-bomb advertisements in magazines lining the approaches to grocery-store checkout counters constitute full-on olfactory assaults most people prefer to avoid.

The Calypso is clearly one lady who understands the power of understatement. No cabbage-rose floozy, she brings grown humans to their knees to sniff at her bits, all because of the subtlety of her scent. It is an effect any French madam would envy.

So, there we were, a group of adults paying homage to a small pink flower blooming beneath the Douglas firs and amid the grasses and mosses of John Dean park on an early summer day.

And happy to do so.

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