Pink Lady Slipper orchids are not only incredibly beautiful, they also teach us about the delicate balance that is required for survival. They are also known as moccasin flowers and an old Ojibwe legend tells of the origin of this name. There was a plague in the middle of the winter that killed many tribe members including the village healer. A young girl was sent off to find medicine for the tribe and lost her shoes on the way. She left a trail of bloody footprints in the snow and those footprints became moccasin flowers in the spring. When I saw these two side by side, they really did resemble moccasins.
When I saw this trio in the still brown woods in mid spring, I was instantly riveted. The dark prink and electric green leaves made the still dormant woods come alive. Throeau experienced this same sense of awe when he came upon them in the wild. He wrote: “Everywhere now in dry pitch pine woods stand the red lady’s slipper over the red pine leaves on the forest floor rejoicing in June. Behold their rich striped red, their drooping sack.”
In Planting the Future: Saving Our Medicinal Herbs, the authors write: “Lady’s slippers are among the most spectacular of wildflowers, almost shocking in their beauty. All species of lady’s slippers, whether growing in bogs or woodlands, are quiet-loving plants that seek out homesites in undisturbed natural habitats.” I can relate, the older I become the more I gravitate to peaceful places and wild natural areas. In my 20’s and 30’s, I lived in NYC and art and culture were my religion. Today, nature is my church, and lady slippers are like stained glass windows that reflect light and shine their beauty for all to see. I have to admit that another writer thought a lady slipper was the perfect candidate for a great Erotica poster.
The bees are attracted to the bright pink flowers, which appear as if they contain lots of nectar but in fact contain none. They have been described as "a fun-house tunnel for bees, with a one-way entrance, a bright exit sign, and some sticky sweet hairs along the way." The bees have to go in the slit, climb down to the bottom to search for the non-existent nectar before they climb back up and exit through one of two holes. The image below shows the exit holes.
When the bees exit through the small holes, the pollen they picked up from the last flower is brushed off their backs and deposited and they pick up pollen from the flower they are exiting. Bees are not unintelligent and they soon figure out its not worth the effort to enter these flowers.
Since Lady Slippers don’t exert unnecessary effort producing food for bees to eat, many plants don’t get pollinated and only 10 percent in a season will produce fruit. But when they do, lady slippers produce thousands of dust-like seeds. Lady slippers teach us why we shouldn’t take things for granted but they also show us why we shouldn’t give up and the importance of being ready when opportunity strikes. They have endurance too. Despite being ephemerals, these plants can live for up to 100 years. Part of their secret is that they don’t bloom every year, another example of conserving energy. Often described as elusive, they bloom a mere 10 to 20 times during their lifetimes and may only produce seeds four or five times. If they have expended too much energy making seeds, or if it becomes too sunny or shady, they go underground and remain dormant until conditions are right. What a gift it must be to know how to exert just the right amount of effort and no more.
The other key ingredient for the survival of lady slippers, has to do with their symbiotic relationship with Mycorrhiza. The fungus helps the pink lady slipper out by breaking open the plant’s seeds and attaching itself to them, its tendrils acting like straws and absorbing and passing along water and nutrients from the soil to the tiny seeds which are too small to include food reserves. Mycorrhizae do this for the lady slippers until they are old enough to produce their own food. Once a lady slipper is capable of photosynthesis, the Mycorrhiza is repaid when it takes excess carbon nutrients from the orchid to sustain its own growth. Think about this for a second. As humans we frequently fail to accept help from or offer assistance to others of our own species, especially if we feel they are at all different from us. Here we have a plant and a fungus working together in a delicate balance that allows them each to live and grow. Not only that, the fungus does not require immediate payback and seems to get the concept of delayed gratification unlike many humans. Could it be that karma applies to the natural world as well? Do the Mycorrhizae know that they will be paid back for their helpfulness later? The relationship between the plants and fungi is not a brief fling either, over after each gets what they want. Without Mycorrhiza present in the soil, the lady slipper dies. That is why transplanting wild orchids usually ends badly and is only recommending when habits are being destroyed. These orchids are meant to exist in the wild.
Elaine Goodale Eastman wrote this short poem about the moccasin flower and its untamed nature that I admire so much:
Yet shy and proud among the forest flowers,
In maiden solitude,
Is one whose charm is never wholly ours,
Nor yielded to our mood:
One true-born blossom, native to our skies,
We dare not claim as kin,
Nor frankly seek, for all that in it lies,
The Indian’s moccasin.