Essay : A treasure in a brief, dour Vineyard spring
Glimpsing a pink lady's slipper in the dappled sunlight of a shady woodland path is one of the treasures of our brief spring here on the Island. The two green leaves balancing a single stem don't prepare you for a blossom that is both erotic and exotic in all its dangling, bright pink glory. How can this dramatic flower grow in such a humble setting? Overshadowed by oaks or beeches, it peeks from under low green shrubbery, a vision, an apparition, on the forest floor strewn with brown leaves. No wonder Native-American Indian lore has it that the lady's slipper can be used to induce spirit dreams.
Recent walks at Duarte's Pond, Waskoskim's Rock, Cranberry Acres, and Sepiessa Point have all been enhanced by sightings of these rare orchids. Pink lady slippers are usually found alone or in a small cluster of two or three plants. A friend and I counted a group of 40, by far the most either of us have ever seen, in one location. One hopes these plants will remain undisturbed by humans or white-tailed deer and continue to thrive.
At an early age, I was taught never to pick or otherwise disturb a pink lady's slipper. It was a good lesson. Lady's slippers, sometimes called moccasin flowers, can only grow under special circumstances. While most plants develop seeds that contain their own food supply and nutrients, the seeds of the lady's slippers do not. Lady's slippers must rely on the presence in the soil of a particular fungus whose threads break open their seeds and help them get started. This fungus provides the food and nutrients that the lady's slippers seed needs to survive.
The relationship between the lady's slipper and the fungus is a symbiotic one, although the fungus has to wait a long time for its reward. A new lady's slipper plant can take years to develop. When it finally matures, its roots at last return the favor by providing the fungus with essential nutrients.
Once it blooms, the lady's slipper needs the help of another creature, the bee. Bees provide essential pollination. When you next see a lady's slipper, watch closely and you may be lucky enough to see a bee inside the pink flower throwing its body against the flesh of the blossom. Attracted by the sweet smell of the lady's slipper, the bee enters the closed flower, something no other insect is strong enough to do. Once inside, however, the bee is trapped. To get out, the bee must climb to the neck of the flower and squeeze through the small opening. Doing so, it brushes its back against the stamens, and it comes away covered with pollen. If the bee is seduced into entering another of the pink blooms, pollination may take place.