Species Profile

Phantom Orchid

Scientific Name: Cephalanthera austiniae
Taxonomy Group: Vascular Plants
Range: British Columbia
Last COSEWIC Assessment: November 2014
Last COSEWIC Designation: Endangered
SARA Status: Schedule 1, Threatened

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Quick Links: | Photo | Description | Distribution and Population | Habitat | Biology | Threats | Protection | Recovery Initiatives | Recovery Team | National Recovery Program | Documents

Image of Phantom Orchid

Phantom Orchid Photo 2



The Phantom Orchid (Cephalanthera austiniae) is a myco-heterotrophic epiparasite that lacks chlorophyll and derives its food from a three-way partnership with an underground fungus and a tree species. The white flowering stem stands up to 55 cm tall. White sheaths up to 10 cm long clasp a smooth leafless stock topped by up to 20 white flowers. The noticeably vanilla-scented, aromatic flowers have a yellow throat. Fibrous roots branch from a slender rhizome. (Updated 2017/05/25)


Distribution and Population

The Phantom Orchid is the only North American representative of the genus Cephalanthera. It is found only in the Pacific Northwest, in California, Oregon, Washington, Idaho, and British Columbia (BC). In BC, it occurs only in the extreme southwest, with subpopulations reported from southeast Vancouver Island, Saltspring Island, and the lower Fraser Valley. (Updated 2017/05/25)



In BC, the Phantom Orchid is found in relatively undisturbed old growth, mature and occasionally older second growth forests. It is typically found in coniferous or mixed forests and it requires an intact below-ground (ectomycorrhizal) fungal network. In BC, the Phantom Orchid usually grows in sites with sparse ground cover and thick leaf litter although it is also occasionally found in areas with a high cover of forbs and shrubs. In BC, the Phantom Orchid is found at elevations ranging from 0-550 m, on a range of slopes (0-92%) and the majority of sites are south to southwest-facing. Some sites in BC occur on soils with elevated pH including bedrock with carbonate materials, shell middens, and limestone quarry tailings. Litter from Bigleaf Maple or other trees may play a role in making the soil pH more alkaline than in other sites. (Updated 2017/05/25)



Phantom Orchid does not flower every year and although the flowers indicate the presence of the orchid, they do not reflect the full extent of the below-ground plants. Plants may have periods of dormancy and it is unclear what factors trigger the production of flowering stems. Flowering is staggered over the growing season from early May to mid-July with unconfirmed reports of flowering stems emerging as late as September. The pollinators of the Phantom Orchid in BC are not known. The Phantom Orchid can self-pollinate and other Cephalanthera species are known to have substantial levels of inbreeding, suggesting that they also self-pollinate. Like other orchids, Cephalanthera species produce large numbers of very tiny seeds that are dispersed by wind, generally with short dispersal distances (i.e. less than 6 m). In BC, very few of the flowering stems produce capsules or mature seed. The Phantom Orchid receives its food via a parasitic connection to mycorrhizal fungi, which are in turn associated with the roots of a tree species. The health of both the tree species and the mycorrhizal fungus is critical to the survival of the orchid. Molecular studies of populations in the United States found the Phantom Orchid was exclusively associated with a fungus of the family Thelephoraceae. (Updated 2017/05/25)



The primary threat to Phantom Orchid is habitat destruction from the rapid increase of new housing development. The majority of Phantom Orchid sites occur on private property (12 of the 20 subpopulations have some or all sites on private land). Phantom Orchid occurs on private property owned by 22 different landowners and several of the landowners intend to subdivide. Homeowner activities including maintenance and construction of both buildings and gardens, inadvertent mowing and trampling can threaten the Phantom Orchid. The Phantom Orchid is also threatened by forest harvest activities, which can destroy habitat directly and/or by altering hydrology/light conditions, removing host trees, destroying the fungal partner, creating edge effects, and increasing fragmentation. Recreational activities including hiking and dirt-biking can also damage plants and habitat. Other threats include competition from invasive plants, plant collection, overgrazing by deer, impacts associated with small isolated populations, and threats to partner species. (Updated 2017/05/25)



Federal Protection

The Phantom Orchid is protected under the federal Species at Risk Act (SARA). More information about SARA, including how it protects individual species, is available in the Species at Risk Act: A Guide.

Provincial and Territorial Protection

To know if this species is protected by provincial or territorial laws, consult the provinces' and territories' websites.


Recovery Initiatives

Status of Recovery Planning

Recovery Strategies :

Name Recovery Strategy for the Phantom Orchid (Cephalanthera austiniae) in British Columbia
Status Preliminary draft received by leads


Recovery Team

Phantom Orchid Recovery Team

  • Lisa Fox - Chair/Contact - Conservation organization (NGO)
    Phone: 604-864-5530  Send Email
  • Kym Welstead - Chair/Contact - Government of BC
    Phone: 604-582-5279  Fax: 604-930-7119  Send Email



PLEASE NOTE: Not all COSEWIC reports are currently available on the SARA Public Registry. Most of the reports not yet available are status reports for species assessed by COSEWIC prior to May 2002. Other COSEWIC reports not yet available may include those species assessed as Extinct, Data Deficient or Not at Risk. In the meantime, they are available on request from the COSEWIC Secretariat.

5 record(s) found.

COSEWIC Status Reports

  • COSEWIC Assessment and Status Report on the Phantom Orchid Cephalanthera austiniae in Canada (2015)

    The Phantom Orchid (Cephalanthera austiniae) is a myco-heterotrophic epiparasite that lacks chlorophyll and derives its food from a three-way partnership with an underground fungus and a tree species. The white flowering stem stands up to 55 cm tall. White sheaths up to 10 cm long clasp a smooth leafless stock topped by up to 20 white flowers. The noticeably vanilla-scented, aromatic flowers have a yellow throat. Fibrous roots branch from a slender rhizome.

Response Statements

  • Response Statement - Phantom Orchid (2015)

    This parasitic orchid occurs in very low numbers at scattered locations in southwestern British Columbia. Losses of some subpopulations, along with continuing habitat fragmentation and declines in habitat quality through new housing development and recreational activities, make future losses of subpopulations likely. The species' dependency on specific habitat conditions and its inter-dependency on a fungal partner and associated tree species make it more susceptible to extirpation.

COSEWIC Annual Reports

  • COSEWIC Annual Report - 2014-2015 (2015)

    Under Canada’s Species at Risk Act (SARA), the foremost function of COSEWIC is to "assess the status of each wildlife species considered by COSEWIC to be at risk and, as part of the assessment, identify existing and potential threats to the species". COSEWIC held two Wildlife Species Assessment Meetings in this reporting year (October, 2014 to September, 2015) from November 23 to November 28, 2014 and from April 27 to May 1, 2015. During the current reporting period, COSEWIC assessed the status or reviewed the classification of 56 wildlife species. The wildlife species assessment results for the 2014-2015 reporting period include the following: Extinct: 0 Extirpated: 1 Endangered: 21 Threatened: 11 Special Concern: 21 Data Deficient: 1 Not at Risk: 1 Total: 56 Of the 56 wildlife species examined, COSEWIC reviewed the classification of 40 that had been previously assessed. The review of classification for 24 of those wildlife species resulted in a confirmation of the same risk status as the previous assessment.

Consultation Documents

  • Consultation on Amending the List of Species under the Species at Risk Act : Terrestrial Species - January 2016 (2016)

    The Government of Canada is committed to preventing the disappearance of wildlife species at risk from our lands. As part of its strategy for realizing that commitment, on June 5, 2003, the Government of Canada proclaimed the Species at Risk Act (SARA). Attached to the Act is Schedule 1, the list of the species provided for under SARA, also called the List of Wildlife Species at Risk. Extirpated, Endangered and Threatened species on Schedule 1 benefit from the protection of prohibitions and recovery planning requirements under SARA. Special Concern species benefit from its management planning requirements. Schedule 1 has grown from the original 233 to 521 wildlife species at risk. Please submit your comments byMay 4, 2016, for terrestrial species undergoing normal consultationsand byOctober 4, 2016, for terrestrial species undergoing extended consultations.For a description of the consultation paths these species will undergo, please see:Species at Risk Public Registry website

Recovery Document Posting Plans

  • Environment and Climate Change Canada's Three-Year Recovery Document Posting Plan (2016)

    Environment and Climate Change Canada’s Three-Year Recovery Document Posting Plan identifies the species for which recovery documents will be posted each fiscal year starting in 2014-2015. Posting this three year plan on the Species at Risk Public Registry is intended to provide transparency to partners, stakeholders, and the public about Environment and Climate Change Canada’s plan to develop and post these proposed recovery strategies and management plans. However, both the number of documents and the particular species that are posted in a given year may change slightly due to a variety of circumstances. Last update March 31, 2017