Lady’s slippers

- Laura Wainwright

Eager as any mushroom hunters, my friend, Debby Farber, and I tramp the moist May paths of Duarte’s Pond, Waskosim’s Rock, Cranberry Acres, and Sepiessa on the lookout for lady’s slippers. First come the two leaves thrusting through the damp spring soil, followed quickly by the single stem, and finally the blossom swells and deepens to a bright pink.

By mid to late May, these wild orchids poke through the dappled sunlight of shady woodland paths, overshadowed by oaks and beeches. Peeking out from under low green shrubbery, they are a vision on the brown leaf-strewn forest floor. No wonder Native American lore has it that the lady’s slipper can be used to induce spirit dreams,
At an early age, I was taught never to pick nor in any way disturb a pink lady’s slipper. It was a good lesson. A lady’s slipper, or moccasin flower, is a protected species that only grows under special circumstances. Most plants develop seeds that contain their own food supply and nutrients, but the seeds of a lady’s slipper do not.

Instead lady’s slippers’ seeds rely on the presence of a particular fungus in the soil whose threads break open the seeds, and provide necessary food and nutrients. It’s a symbiotic relationship, but the fungus has to wait a long time for its reward. A new lady’s slipper plant can take years to develop, but when it finally matures, its roots will return the favor to the fungus by providing it with essential nutrients.

An established lady’s slipper can live for 20 years or more if left alone. Debby and I have been watching for the flowers long enough to know where many will come up. We greet them like old friends back after a long journey. In one spot, we can expect to see as many as 70 flowers, but I won’t say where that is.

Once a lady’s slipper is mature enough to bloom, it needs the help of another creature — the bee. Attracted by the sweet smell, a bee will enter the closed flower. Once inside, it becomes trapped. To get out, the bee must climb to the neck of the flower and squeeze through the small opening. As it does, the bee brushes its back against the stamens, and exits the lady’s slipper flower covered with pollen. Usually, the bee can’t resist diving into another pink blossom, and pollination takes place. Often Debby and I sit on the damp ground and watch bees push against the fleshy blossoms in their struggle to get out.

It’s humbling how many specific factors must align for each small lady’s slipper to become established, mature, and finally bloom. So much in our culture is available instantly now that it’s hard, but essential, to grasp the patience of a fungus that waits years to be repaid for helping a lady’s slipper seed get its start. What faith! What a delicate balance! No wonder Debby and I are both reassured and comforted when we see these lovely flowers coming up once again in their rightful place, spring after spring.

Excerpted from “Home Bird; Four Seasons on Martha’s Vineyard,” by Laura Wainwright, published in 2012 by Vineyard Stories, available at Bunch of Grapes, Edgartown Books and the Allen Farm. Photo of pie by Olga Berman.