I think that all but the keenest, most experienced observers would never suspect there is flowing water up this dry wash when looking at it from the flats below. The arroyo, however, turns into a small, bouldery creek bed that cuts a deep gash into the mountainside, but it’s hidden from plain sight until one gets right up to it. And through a short section of the miniature canyon, even in this year of record drought, water flows.
The creek bed is shaded through midday in the dappled light of a sparse cover of oak and sycamore trees, a mountainside casting a shadow over it through early morning and a massive outcrop shading the area by late afternoon.
Here in this unlikely moist nook, filled with a melange of scents comprised of the sweetness of trickling clear water, the earthy fragrance of wet sediment, and spiked with effluvial hints of decomposing organic matter, a place surrounded by parched south and west facing chaparral-covered hills that are blistering hot in summer months, California stream orchids thrive in abundance.
I recall the first time I saw this type of orchid in the wild, which is notable, for no other first experience with a native wildflower sticks out so prominently in my mind. I was about 10 or 11 years old exploring the forest with a friend and we found a small clump growing along Mono Creek, just below the campground and debris dam.
I was surprised to find orchids growing in this semi-arid region of south-central California, though this portion of Mono Creek tends to be exceptionally lush relative its upper reaches and other creeks in general. Nonetheless, the orchids seemed out of place even in the “Mono Jungle.”
I didn’t actually know for sure that they were orchids, but I knew enough to recognize that they certainly resembled orchids, and so that’s what we called them. Always curious, I touched one of the blooms and it moved, under its own power, which made the plant all the more fascinating.
California stream orchids are thigmonastic, meaning that they respond when touched. They move the lower portion of their blooms, presumably as a means to better spread pollen to pollinators that come in contact with their flowers. For this reason they are sometimes referred to as “chatterbox orchids,” for their nastic motions call to mind the jaw movement of a talking person.