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 is an almost totally white plant that can grow up to 65 cm high.  It consists of a leafless stem with white sheaths up to 10 cm long.  At the top of the stem, the plant produces a cluster of up to 20 aromatic flowers that are white with a yellow throat.  In some years, the flowering stalks within a single colony can vary from tall and robust to short and weak-looking.  Thick fibrous roots branch from a short rhizome.  Plants grow in colonies, scattered in humus (partially decomposed organic matter), and show a preference for areas with little groundcover and little competition. (Updated 2006/04/05)


Distribution and Population

Endemic to (found only in) the Pacific Northwest of North America, the Phantom Orchid occurs in California, Oregon, Washington, Idaho and British Columbia.  In Canada, it is found only in the extreme southwest of British Columbia, with populations on the Saanich Peninsula of Vancouver Island, Saltspring Island, and the lower Fraser Valley on the mainland.  While suitable habitat exists throughout the Fraser Valley and additional locations may turn up in the future, the overall range of the species is unlikely to change.  This plant has a very restricted distribution in Canada.  The Phantom Orchid is known to have occurred at twelve sites in Canada, but it now occurs at only eight of these.  There are only a few individuals at each site, for a combined grand total of approximately 100 individuals. (Updated 2006/04/05)



Most often the Phantom Orchid grows in the humus litter in coniferous forests with little or sparse ground cover, but at one site, it grows on limestone tailings from a quarry.  It is often found at the base of mature Birch trees.  The species prefers low mountains or hills, where it usually occurs on south- or west-facing slopes. (Updated 2006/04/05)



The Phantom Orchid lacks chlorophyll.  It obtains its nourishment from decaying acid coniferous humus through an association with a group of fungi which in turn form associations with specific species of trees (often Birches) and shrubs. The orchid flowers sporadically.  The conditions that trigger flowering are unknown, but grazing appears to have a beneficial effect, climatic conditions appear to be a factor, and the amount of light it receives is probably important.  It can lie dormant for up to 17 years waiting for conditions to be right.  Only three of the Canadian sites consistently have flowering plants.  In favourable years, flowering stems emerge continuously throughout the flowering season which ranges from early May to late July.  Even when a plant flowers, it does not always form seeds, further limiting reproductive capacity of the species. (Updated 2006/04/05)



This Orchid is limited by climatic conditions at the northern edge of its range, and appears to require some degree of disturbance to reduce competition.  Habitat destruction or modification resulting from the development of subdivisions or other uses of the land, and the increase in competition resulting from the elimination of grazing are important threats to the Phantom Orchid. (Updated 2006/04/05)



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.

Two sites where the Orchid occurs have formal protection in provincial parks, a third is partly protected in an ecological reserve, and a fourth site has received Crown Land status with a view to further protection. (Updated 2006/04/05)

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